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Exercise tips to improve your fitness and get ready for work

Daniel Santa Mina, PhD, RKin; Scientist, ELLICSR: Health, Wellness & Cancer Survivorship Centre Assistant Professor, Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, University of Toronto

Dr. Daniel Santa Mina completed his PhD at York University, Toronto and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. He is a Registered Kinesiologist and Certified Exercise Physiologist with specialization in oncology. Dr. Santa Mina is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, at the University of Toronto and a Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, where he leads the Wellness and Exercise for Cancer Survivors Program. His research focuses on the physiological, functional, and psychosocial effects of exercise for cancer survivors as well as knowledge-translation strategies for integrating exercise programming into oncology standards of care.

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You have likely heard it before, but in case you missed it – exercise is important for your health. For cancer survivors, being physically active can be challenging, but the benefits are substantial at any stage of your cancer journey.

In fact, a lot of research has found that, when exercise is tailored to the person, it is safe, does not interfere with other cancer treatments and can improve both quality and quantity of life. Routine physical activity will help cancer survivors build up or recover the physical fitness they need for activities of daily living as well as work.

Some of the benefits of exercise are:

  • less fatigue
  • better sleep
  • stronger muscles
  • better cardiovascular (or aerobic) fitness
  • healthier body composition (weight, body fat, muscle)
  • less anxiety and depression
  • more tolerance of cancer treatments
  • earlier recovery from treatment

Many of these benefits support cancer survivors as they prepare to return to work. For example, exercise improves physical function and reduces fatigue so work tasks can be done more comfortably.

A number of major health agencies recommend exercise for cancer survivors. Some have created guidelines about the types of exercise survivors should do, how much, how often, and how hard. Cancer Care Ontario and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that cancer survivors:

  • avoid inactivity
  • strive for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, spread over three to five days a week
  • do resistance training of the major muscle groups two to three days a week
Before you start an exercise program, discuss it with your medical team. If you are cleared, choose types of exercise that mimic or closely relate to your job.

For example:

If your job requires a lot of walking… Go for walks and increase the time you spend walking each time until you reach the point that is common in your job. That will help you build your physical fitness and gauge when you are ready to return to work.
If your job requires a lot of hand or arm strength… Do resistance exercises that can strengthen your hand and arm muscles.
If your job is more sedentary, like a desk job… Exercise is still beneficial. It can help build mental resilience and lessen the fatigue that may limit your ability to perform at your best all day.

No matter what type of job you are returning to, exercise can help – but to be safe and effective, it needs to be done appropriately. It is a good idea to get guidance from an exercise professional, like a registered kinesiologist or certified exercise physiologist.

Planning an exercise program tailored just for you

Use the Godin-Shephard Leisure-Time Exercise Questionnaire (Godin and Shephard, 1985) to help you plan your exercise.

More resources on exercise for cancer survivors

Exercise for Health: An Exercise Guide for Breast Cancer Survivors (PDF) by Dr. Jeff Vallance and Dr. Kerry Courneya

For a review on exercise guidelines for cancer survivors, see Physical Activity & Exercise Benefits Cancer Patients and Survivors (PDF; Cancer Care Nova Scotia, 2015)

WE-Can Wellness & Exercise for Cancer Survivors

To learn about eating healthfully after cancer, see Nourishonline.ca. This online magazine, developed for Canadians by registered oncology dietitians, can help you care for yourself by eating well during cancer treatment.