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In general, the exercise guidelines for cancer patients and survivors are similar to the guidelines for the general public. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, you should:

1. Be active

2. Perform aerobic exercise

  • New to exercise? Work up to or perform either 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week.
  • Regular exerciser? Try increasing your moderate-intensity physical activity to 300 minutes or your vigorous-intensity physical activity to 150 minutes each week.

3. Perform resistance exercise

  • Perform moderate-to-high intensity, muscle-strengthening exercises (body weight, dumbbells, or resistance bands) that involve all the major muscle groups at least two days per week.

In general, exercise can be broken down into a few basic elements. Having a general understanding of them can help ensure you safely maximize your benefits. The basic elements of exercise:

  • Frequency: How often you exercise.
  • Intensity: How hard you exercise.
  • Time: How long you exercise.
  • Type: What kind of exercise you perform.

Exercise Frequency

Ideally, you should make time to exercise most days of the week. This is important because, on top of missing out on the benefits of exercise, prolonged periods of inactivity are associated with negative changes throughout your body. This is especially relevant for cancer patients or survivors who may not feel well after their treatments and who are more likely to be inactive.

Exercise Intensity

Intensity matters! Exercise intensity is one of the most important considerations for exercise. Exercise intensities that are too low may not challenge your body enough to cause positive changes. Exercise intensities that are too high may not be safe for everyone.

According to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, exercise intensity can be described as follows:

  • Light exercise: No noticeable change in breathing pattern.
  • Moderate exercise: Can talk, but not sing.
  • Vigorous exercise: Can say only a few words without having to stop in order to catch a breath.

Exercise Time

Although some exercise is always better than no exercise, you need to sustain your exercise for at least 15 minutes or more to really benefit from its protective effects. However, don't worry if you can't maintain the activity for 15 minutes at first. By breaking your exercise time down into more manageable chunks — for example five minutes of an activity done three times throughout the day — you can still add up enough exercise in a day to benefit from it!

Exercise Type

The two main types of exercise that may help prevent and treat cancer-related cardiotoxicity are aerobic exercise training and resistance exercise training.

Aerobic Exercise Training

Aerobic exercise training is a type of physical activity that you can keep up for more than a couple minutes. It increases your heart rate and causes you to become short of breath (brisk walking, biking, swimming and dancing).

Resistance Exercise Training

Resistance exercise training requires your muscles to contract against resistance using either gravity (body weight, dumbbells) or resistance bands at a high enough intensity that you can perform 8-20 repetitions before feeling tired. Talk to your health care professional about how much weight would be a good amount for you to work with.

Your body is incredibly resilient and adaptable! You will likely notice that the more you exercise the easier it becomes. This is a good sign! However, to get the most out of your exercise, you need to keep challenging your body. Although this may sound intimidating, it really is not that difficult. Remember the basic elements of exercise: frequency, intensity, time, and type. Any time you notice an exercise getting easier, all you need to do is change one of these basic elements. Here are some examples:

  • Try adding an extra bike ride or walk into your schedule. Take an extra 15-minute walk before or after work — or even at lunch.
  • Try walking a little faster or changing your route from a flatter path to one with a few small hills.
  • Try increasing your exercise time by a few minutes or adding a few blocks to your route.
  • Try changing up your exercise. If you are used to walking, try jogging for a few minutes during your walks. If you are used to working with resistance bands, try adding some dumbbells or body-weight exercises.

The key here is to remember to keep it safe and simple: Only change one thing at a time. Doing so will help ensure that you do not injure yourself by overtraining. It also will help you keep track of what changes work best for you. If you have any concerns with exercise or unclear how to star, talk with you healthcare team and they may create an exercise prescription for you.

Rest is an important part of every exercise program! There are actually two types of recovery to keep in mind: passive rest and active rest:

  • Passive rest involves breaking up your exercise routine to give yourself a day off from exercise, about one to two days per week.
  • .
  • Active rest involves mixing up your exercise intensity and time so that you are still being active but not pushing yourself as hard.

Building both types of rest into your routine will help you get the most out of your exercise by lower your risk of injury and giving your body more time to recover.

For example, instead of going for the same brisk 45-minute walk after dinner each night (seven days a week), mix it up a little. Try walking the route a little faster 1-2 times a week (complete your regular route in 30 to 35 minutes), a little slower 1-2 times a week (give yourself 55-60 minutes), and adding 1-2 days of rest into your schedule.

Cancer really does change everything, but figuring out how to keep moving and incorporating exercise into your life is a vital part of recovery. By working with your health and exercise team, you can stay active without exposing yourself to unnecessary risks!

Speaking with your surgeon and medical/radiation oncologist are great ways to get informed about these risks. However, beyond safety issues, they may not know much about the best way to incorporate exercise into your life.

**We also recommend seeking advice from, or working with, a cancer-experienced exercise specialist (for example clinical exercise physiologist, kinesiologist, physiotherapist) before initiating a new exercise program after a cancer diagnosis.

How do you find someone who is qualified? Exercise oncology is a relatively new area of expertise, so finding someone with the training and experience may not be easy.

Here are a few tips/questions to aid in your search.

Look for cancer exercise programs near you.

  • Are there any professional support services or organizations/cancer exercise programs in your area (e.g., LIVESTRONG at the YMCA)? As the awareness of the benefits of exercise for cancer patients and survivors grows, so too will the number of exercise support services in your community. Check out community centers, local gyms, and patient/survivor support services in your area to learn more about the services that may be available to you.

Seek the advice of a trained professional/specialist.

  • Take the time to get to know them and ask about their background and training. Don't worry. Anyone with the right experience won't take offense to being asked questions.
  • The American College of Sports Medicine has a specialized certification training course for professionals wanting to work with cancer patients/survivors. It's called the Cancer Exercise Trainer Certification. Ask if the person has completed this training.
  • If not, ask if the person at least has an undergraduate/graduate degree in clinical exercise physiology, kinesiology, physiotherapy, or a related field of study.
  • Make sure you find out if the person has previous experience — or other specialized training — working with people with cancer. Do not be shy to ask for the details.

If there is a cost for the service or consultation, ask if the professional/specialist can provide a receipt for your insurance company.

  • If they can provide a receipt, it is also a good idea to check with your insurance provider to verify that it will accept the claim.

Ask if the professional/specialist has any professional liability insurance to work with cancer patients/survivors.

  • Liability insurance protects both the practitioner and yourself in the event that you become injured.
  • This is especially important if you are seeking help privately from an individual practitioner and not through a larger non-profit or corporation.

  • Last Edited 09/30/2018