Tips and Tricks to Start and Maintain Exercise

Author: Lora Packel PT, PhD Chair and Professor, Department of Physical Therapy at Saint Joseph’s University
Last Reviewed: January 23, 2023

Disclaimer: You should discuss your health risks with your provider before starting any exercise program.

Starting and maintaining an exercise program is tough for everyone. Going through the cancer experience adds complexity to this process, but there are many “tricks” to increase your chances of beginning and continuing an exercise program during or after cancer treatments.

How Do I Get Started?

Set S.M.A.R.T goals

Make goals that are realistic given your present health and treatment plan.

Sstands for specific.

Avoid broad goals such as “I’ll walk more this month.” Instead, be as specific as possible. "I will walk three times per week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday."

Mstands for measurable.

When you look at a goal it should be easy and clear to indicate whether you’ve met the goal or not. Think of putting a checkbox with "Yes" or "No" next to the goal and ask yourself, "will it be clear if I’ve met this goal?"

A means achievable.

Be realistic about what you can achieve given your present fitness levels and the intensity of your cancer treatments. Slow and steady wins the race, so set short goals that you can achieve given the circumstances of your current treatment plan.

Rmeans relevant.

Your exercise goals should be meaningful for you. Why do you want to exercise? What specific benefits are you looking for? Write down the “why” of exercise and place it somewhere visible so that you can remind yourself of why you want to exercise, especially on those days when it’s hard to motivate.

Tmeans time.

Be sure to include a time component. Set frequent short-term goals on your way to meeting your long-term goal. Small achievements are important to inch your way towards your big goal!

Examples of goals are:

  • I will walk at a fast pace for 20-30 minutes 3 days per week for one month.
  • I will use the stairs, not the elevator when I go to the cancer center.
  • I will work in my garden for 10 minutes each day during the summer months.
  • I will walk for 15 minutes each day for two weeks.
    • After two weeks, set another goal! In weeks three and four, I will walk 20 minutes each day for two weeks.
  • I will play active games with my grandchildren two times each week.
Sit Less

Work to replace some of your sitting time with standing and movement. Take stock of how much you are sitting during the day. Count everything – sitting for meals, sitting while using a computer, driving to treatment sessions, etc. Once you’ve taken stock of how much you sit, make an effort to reduce sitting time, creating a S.M.A.R.T. goal such as, “I will stand every 30 minutes while at my computer.”

There are plenty of apps to help remind you to stand such as “Stand Up” or “Awareness.” Even small interruptions of standing for 2 minutes after a long bout of sitting may be beneficial for your blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Determine a plan to “get back on the horse” if you’ve stopped for any reason

No one is perfect! There are times when we stop exercising for a variety of reasons; not feeling well, lack of time, or difficulty with motivation. The important thing is to plan for this to happen (it’s not an “if,” it’s a “when” it will happen).

Revisit your SMART goals, especially the “why” part of exercising. If you’ve taken a break intentionally or unintentionally, give yourself some breathing room to rebuild. The cancer experience has periods of more energy and periods of lower energy, so be kind to yourself. Revise the intensity or duration of your exercise prescription, as you’ll have to start a little slower and build back up to where you were before this pause.

Learn a variety of exercises.

Variety is the spice of life! People who perform different types of exercises are more likely to avoid boredom and keep up with their exercise plan.

Each exercise uses muscles in a particular way, so adding in variety increases the chances that you are exercising different muscles. Take a new class at the gym or try a community program. If you are uncertain about the class, see if they have lessons for beginners or free sessions that would enable you to try it out. There are also plenty of online exercise classes that you can take for free. Building confidence with different exercises is an important part of building the habit of exercise into your life.

Problem solve around issues that may sidetrack your intentions to exercise

Make a list of reasons that you might not exercise and how you will deal with them.

Examples:

I might feel tired from my treatment

I will walk for a shorter period of time, sit on a bench, and then try walking again.

I am too exhausted

I know exercise gives me energy, so I will make an exercise date with a friend to motivate me to follow through.

I am too busy going to see my providers.

I will put exercise on my schedule just like I would a meeting and stick to it.

I will do some exercises while in the waiting room.

I will put sneakers in my car so I am ready to walk whenever I get a short break.

I am too busy going to see my providers.

I will put exercise on my schedule just like I would a meeting and stick to it.

I will do some exercises while in the waiting room.

I will put sneakers in my car so I am ready to walk whenever I get a short break.

I am too sad to exercise

I will get a walking partner so I can have someone to talk to and get exercise at the same time.

I will talk to my provider about feeling sad.

Get support

People who have exercise partners are more likely to stick with their program.

  • Exercise with a friend or with family.
  • If you have a caregiver (friend or spouse), exercise with them! Exercise has been shown to help manage the stress associated with caring for someone with cancer. Also, you’ll serve as exercise supports for each other, providing accountability and motivation.
  • Join an exercise program for people with cancer. It is important to be with people who know what you are going through.
    • Ask your cancer center about people who are trained in exercise for the person with cancer.
    • Contact your local chapter of the American Cancer Society and ask about exercise programs. You can visit their website at: www.cancer.org.
    • Contact the Cancer Support Community for local exercise and support groups at https://www.cancersupportcommunity.org/
    • Contact the American Physical Therapy Association to find a physical therapist that knows about exercise, cancer, and cancer treatments. For PTs that specialize in oncology, visit https://aptaapps.apta.org//APTAPTDirectory/FindAPTDirectory.aspx
Be kind to yourself

It is okay to miss a few days of exercise. Don't punish yourself for a 'bad week.' Get back to your exercise as soon as you can.

References

American Cancer Society (2022). Physical Activity and the Person with Cancer. Taken from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/survivorship-during-and-after-treatment/be-healthy-after-treatment/physical-activity-and-the-cancer-patient.html

ChoosePT, American Physical Therapy Association. Find a PT. Taken from https://aptaapps.apta.org//APTAPTDirectory/FindAPTDirectory.aspx

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