From walking to swimming, we look at five types of exercise anyone can try after breast cancer treatment, with some expert tips to get you started.
The benefits of physical activity for people with breast cancer are well known, from easing fatigue to improving mental wellbeing. But if you’re struggling with the effects of treatment, getting active is easier said than done.
‘Exercise doesn’t need to be vigorous or high-impact to provide its many health benefits,’ says cancer exercise expert Lizzy Davis. ‘It’s important to start gently and progress slowly.’
Lizzy recommends speaking to your medical team before starting out.
Best foot forward
A brisk walk is the perfect way to increase your activity levels. All you need is a comfortable pair of shoes – and maybe a friend to keep you company. It’s the easiest form of exercise to incorporate into your daily routine.
Start slowly and build up the amount of walking you do and your pace gradually. You could use a pedometer app for your phone to track your progress. Walking for Health is England’s largest network of health walks.
Strike a pose
Yoga combines postures and breathing to boost physical and mental wellbeing. It’s great for improving strength, flexibility and balance.
Dr Jimmy Kwok, Head of Oncology at HCA Healthcare, is a registered yoga teacher and has practised Ashtanga yoga for over a decade.
‘It’s only recently the medical community has awoken to the potential health benefits this ancient practice might have in supporting people with medical conditions, including cancer,’ he says.
There are many styles of yoga, some of which are more vigorous than others.
‘Studies have suggested that breast cancer patients and survivors who practise yoga experience reduced fatigue levels,’ says Jimmy, ‘and that yoga can help lift “chemo-brain”, alleviate depression and lymphoedema, and improve movement after surgery.’
You don’t have to be super flexible to give it a try. ‘Yoga isn’t only about how bendy you are,’ says Jimmy.
‘It’s about focusing your awareness inwards, using physical postures as a moving meditation. With consistent yoga practice, in time, you’ll feel a shift in your flexibility.
‘It’s suitable for everyone, including complete beginners. Cancer patients and survivors with no previous experience can reap its benefits.’
For information on different yoga styles, visit the Dr Yoga website.
The extra mile
‘You don’t need half the stuff you think you need to start running,’ says Laura Fountain, running coach and founder of Lazy Girl Running. ‘All you need are some clothes you feel comfortable in and you’re good to go.’
Laura says having a goal means you’re more likely to keep running regularly. ‘It doesn’t have to be a marathon – your goal might be to run a lap of the park. Each run you do will take you a few steps towards making it happen.
‘Grab a notebook or diary and, after each run, write down how long you ran for and how you felt. Sometimes it feels like you’re not making progress. But if you can look back and see that a few weeks ago running for 1 minute at a time felt hard, but now 5 minutes is comfortable, it’ll encourage you to keep going.’
Having a running buddy is also great for motivation. ‘Search out a local beginners’ running group, or a friend who wants to start running. A long-distance training partner can work just as well – messaging each other will help you keep motivated.’
Laura also recommends keeping some of that beginners’ eagerness for a few weeks down the line. ‘We all start with lots of enthusiasm,’ she says, ‘keen to get out there and make it happen. And that’s great. But there’s a chance you’ll overdo it. Hitting the gym five times in that first week isn’t a good idea.’
Make a splash
Whether butterfly’s your bag or you’re more of a doggy paddler, swimming is a great all-round exercise suitable for all ages. It’s low-impact, so won’t put joints under stress.
Many swimming pools have adult beginner classes and women-only sessions. Find your local pool at swimming.org
You can buy pocketed mastectomy swimwear in some high street shops, large department stores or specialist shops. For tips on choosing swimwear, try Breast Cancer Care’s information on clothing and swimwear.
A means of getting to work or an enjoyable family activity, cycling is a simple way to increase your activity.
A specialist cycle shop can help you choose the right bike for your budget and needs. Some workplaces operate a cycle to work scheme, which can make buying a bike and equipment more affordable. And if you have an old bike, you could think about having it serviced to make sure it’s still suitable for road use.
If you’re a beginner or getting back in the saddle, cycle training can help boost your confidence. Ask your local council what cycle training is available near you.
Try the Sustrans website for tips on getting started, road safety, bike maintenance and plenty of route maps to inspire you.
Get active, stay active
Lizzy suggests the following tips for getting and staying active:
- List all the activities you enjoy, from walking with a friend to gardening. Don’t exclude anything.
- Plan how you’ll deal with any barriers. For example, if you’re more tired today or feel under the weather, choose lighter activities such as walking or take it easy in your exercise class.
- Try to exercise at a time in the day when energy levels are higher.
- Keep an activity diary. It’s a great motivator and helps track your progress.
- Consistency is key. Do something every day, even if it’s a few minutes of walking. No effort is ever wasted.