Exercise can have such a profound impact on a person’s health that some doctors have started writing down instructions to get moving on a prescription pad. Physical activity may be as powerful as anything that comes from a bottle, but how much and how often is as individual as every pill in your medicine cabinet.
The American College of Sports Medicine makes a general recommendation for cancer survivors to do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. In issuing the guidelines in 2010, the group pointed out that while the long-term benefits are still unknown, “Exercise training is safe during and after cancer treatments and results in improvements in physical functioning, quality of life, and cancer-related fatigue in several cancer survivor groups.”
Getting started can be the hardest part. While oncologists are great at treating cancer, they may not be the best specialists to offer specific guidance on how much exercise is best for individual patients, what type, and how often they should get out and do it, says Karen Mustian, a researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y. “Start with your oncologist,” she says, “but that will probably not be enough. They will often just give general statements: ‘Of course you can exercise. Go ahead. Do something you like. Go walking.’ ”
She advises seeking out a cancer exercise trainer certified by the American College of Sports Medicine. This is a person who has special training in helping cancer survivors find—and stick with—the kind of activity that is best for them. The problem is, the certified cancer trainers are not yet in every area of the country. So it may be necessary to do some asking around to find an exercise specialist familiar with cancer.
A good trainer may also be cognizant of special considerations and risks. While cancer survivors can exercise safely the vast majority of the time—everyone can probably do something, Mustian says—some people may have complications even their doctors are unaware of. Certain treatments could have cardiac complications, or affect the immune system enough to warrant caution in crowded public gyms.
“What’s most important is you find someone you can be open with,” Mustian says. “They will listen and they will work with you to tailor an exercise prescription that meets your needs.”
[Read more about how exercise can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence in "The Fitness Factor"]