Exercising During Chemotherapy

By Melissa Walker
Reviewed by Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

Sure, you already know exercising is part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s no different when you’re going through chemo. In fact, a study in BMJ (British Medical Journal) showed less fatigue, increased strength and greater aerobic capacity in chemo patients who participated in a six-week exercise program.

To break a sweat safely, even when you’re in your most fragile state, clear any exercise program with your oncologist and then follow these guidelines:

Know your limits. “Exercising is more risky during chemotherapy because chemo weakens the body’s ability to make [oxygen-carrying] red and [infection-fighting] white blood cells, and exercise can also slow the formation of new blood cells,” says Letha Hadady, adjunct faculty member for The Renfield Center for Nursing Education, Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and author of Naturally Pain Free. “Choose an activity that’s gentle and balancing for the body, like stretching or walking slowly—not something that will weaken you.” If you feel tired, take a break or stop for the day. “Your goal is to do movements that make your body feel good,” says Hadady.

Redefine “exercise.” If you used to do four spin classes and three boxing workouts a week, you’ll have to reframe your idea of fitness. Any physical activity that’s healing for your body counts—think meditation, acupuncture and massage. These can be your workouts when you’re feeling weakened or would like to choose a more passive physical experience.

Dodge germs and injury. Fitness clubs, yoga studios and other frequently traveled workout locations are a breeding ground for germs. “When your immunities are low, find a private space to exercise,” advises Hadady. This may mean exercising with a video, in a home gym or in a private space with a personal trainer. Also, be sure to avoid contact sports, such as football and soccer, which are more likely to result in injury. Your immune system is weak, so it may take your body longer to heal from even mild cuts, bumps and bruises.

Walk. Taking a stroll is a good thing, and it can easily turn into an opportunity for meditation. “Try a slow, steady rhythm, and walk with a cane if you need it,” says Hadady. “Inhale for four counts, then exhale for eight. It’s a wonderful relaxation exercise.”

Find a class just for you. Ask your doctor to suggest special classes you might take; medical centers and YMCAs often offer programs geared for cancer patients.

Check with a doctor. Ask your healthcare provider about a rehab medical consultation. Here, a therapist specializing in cancer rehabilitation will make sure that you exercise properly during treatment.

Above all, be kind to yourself. If you feel nauseated or off balance one afternoon, wait for the next. You’ll know when it’s time to take a break for a day or two.

Published March 2014



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