How to Get Started With Exercising at Home During Cancer

Sami Mansfield is the founder of Cancer Wellness for Life, an organization focused on developing oncology wellness and exercise resources for hospitals and health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies, nonprofits, and individuals impacted by cancer. Sami is the director of oncology wellness for the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health in Overland Park, Kansas. Sami began her career in 2003 and is one of the first cancer exercise specialists and wellness experts in the world.

Technology in today’s world allows for easy access to countless resources, including food, social connection, education, and health care. Many of our needs can now be met at the touch of our fingertips. This access has been incredibly beneficial, especially as the entire world has had to live through a pandemic and as many immunocompromised people, including those with cancer, have had to restrict their interactions with others.

But while this innovation has created progress in many aspects of our lives, it has also significantly increased many harmful habits related to sedentary, or inactive, behavior. We no longer need to expend the same amount of time and energy to do essential tasks, such as grocery shopping or meal prep. Overall, as a population, we have started to move less and are less motivated to engage in movement-based activities.

For people with cancer and their caregivers, daily movement may be even more challenging while coping with cancer side effects, such as fatigue, and while navigating treatment schedule changes. But physical inactivity has been shown to have a negative impact on the length of life for cancer survivors.

For people with cancer, having a regular exercise program can reduce many common cancer side effects, including fatigue and emotional challenges such as anxiety and depression. Plus, people who exercise report feeling more in control of their cancer experience and often notice fewer long-term physical limitations, even with small amounts of exercise.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that all adults, including those affected by cancer, going through treatment, or living with advanced disease, engage in 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. In fact, a study has shown that even 10 minutes of exercise per day can improve length of life. However, it’s important to always talk with your doctor about how much and what type of exercise is recommended for you.

A simple way to get started with exercise is to do it at home! Exercising at home is very convenient, has minimal—if any—cost, and reduces the need to travel anywhere. Here’s what to know about getting started.

Getting started with exercise at home during cancer

First, sit up straight and pull your shoulder blades together. You are now working on your core and posture, the foundation of all physical movements.

Next, go from a seated to standing position. Use your arms for assistance as needed. Once you get to a vertical position, sit back down and try it again. This simple but effective movement helps you build important muscle tissue and improve lower-body strength and endurance.

Feeling motivated? Try these 5 movements to get a full body workout. If you are new to exercise or are resuming exercise after some time off, start by trying a set of 10 repetitions for each exercise followed by a period of rest, ideally between 1 and 5 minutes. Make a goal to complete the entire workout within 1 hour. If you are feeling stronger and have more energy, work to complete each exercise with minimal rest in between and try for 2 to 3 rounds of each.

  1. Sit to stand. This is also known as a squat. Start by sitting at the edge of a hard-backed chair and pressing through your heels, moving to a standing position. Try to keep your eyes forward. As you stand up fully, squeeze your tush muscles, pause, and lower back down with as much control to your chair. Repeat.

  2. Countertop push-ups. These can be done in a kitchen or bathroom. Start with your hands slightly wider than your chest on a secure, clean, and dry countertop. Walk your feet back until your body is in a straight line from your head down to the back of your body and your heels. Lower your chest—not your nose—to the edge of the countertop. Keeping your elbows in, press your body back to the starting position. Pause and repeat. To make this easier, stand closer to the counter and move your feet back as you get stronger. This exercise is much better for your wrists, shoulders, and core than wall push-ups and can be modified to suit nearly everyone.

  3. Split lunge. For this exercise, stay near your counter or near a firm chair back. Step 1 foot back, keeping your feet shoulder width apart. Slowly begin to lower your back knee down, keeping your weight evenly distributed in the center of your body and your chest up (versus leaning forward). Only lower as much as you can control. Then, lift your body back up. Keep your feet where they are and repeat.

  4. Shoulder press. Either while seated at the edge of a chair or standing, start with your arms bent at 90 degrees and with your thumbs resting on your shoulders. You can do this without weight or add small soup cans or hand weights. Press your arms up so that they are in line with your ears. If you are not sure if you are in the right position, use a mirror or stand with your back against a wall. Keep your stomach muscles tight and your back straight. Lower your arms back down with control and repeat.

  5. Odd object carry. This exercise can be completed with anything that you have around your house that is oddly shaped or an odd weight. Ideas include a laundry basket that is either empty or has something simple in it, such as towels, or such items as 1 or 2 soup cans,  a jug of water, or a small backpack. Start by walking down a hallway or along the back of a couch if you need balance assistance. As you feel stronger, try to take this item up or down stairs or throughout your home. Complete several times or for 1-minute intervals.

The author has no relevant relationships to disclose.

Read more about exercise during and after cancer on the Cancer.Net Blog.

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