Setting fitness goals in cancer survivorship

Setting fitness goals in cancer survivorship

Setting fitness goals during your cancer journey can significantly improve your life, says Joel Hardwick, ACSM EP-CET, EIM2, an exercise physiologist at Piedmont Atlanta Fitness Center.

“Goals related to physical function, such as range of motion and strength, are ideal,” he says. “Exercise will increase your energy level, decrease fatigue and improve self-esteem. We see this regularly in people with cancer. It can also reduce the risk of recurrence by up to 40%. Those are big motivators.”

Benefits of exercise goals in cancer survivorship

No matter where you are on your cancer journey, physical activity can help you:

Recover after surgery. “When you go through surgery and come out on the other end, you may feel weak, experience muscle atrophy and not be able to attain the same level of activity you had before,” he explains. “Strength training and moving regularly will help you regain strength.”

Reduce your risk of cancer recurrence and other diseases. Some people stay at a low level of activity because of chemo, radiation or hormone therapy, Hardwick notes. But being inactive can lead to other diseases and risk factors, like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Research has shown that regular moderate exercise (like walking three to five hours a week) decreased the risk of recurrence by 40 to 50% in breast cancer patients.

Reduce fatigue and increase energy. “Many people who are going through cancer treatment experience fatigue. Chemo and radiation can really knock the wind out of you to the point that you don’t feel like getting out of bed,” he says. “A good goal to set during this time might be to walk more. The hardest part is getting up. Once you are up and moving, you’ll feel so much better than when you started.”

Regain strength and range of motion. “Breast cancer patients who have undergone radiation often develop rounded shoulders, chest tightness and weakness in the back muscles, making it hard to lift their arms, which affects daily living,” explains Hardwick. “A goal for breast cancer survivors might be opening the chest, strengthening the back, improving range of motion and building strength in the upper body.”

Improve your mental health. He notes that the American College of Sports Medicine recently released an article on strong evidence that exercise helps improve anxiety, depressive symptoms, fatigue and health-related quality of life, which affects physical, psychological, and social functioning in your day-to-day life.

Setting the right goals

Hardwick recommends setting SMART goals. SMART stands for:

  • Specific. Your goal should be action-oriented, clear and concise.

  • Measurable. The goal should provide a way to evaluate progress. For example, improvements in blood glucose, blood pressure, amount of weight you’re able to lift or being able to get down on the floor to play with your grandkids.

  • Achievable. It needs to be challenging yet doable.

  • Relevant. This goal should help you get closer to the vision you have for your life.

  • Timely. It has an end date by which you want to accomplish the goal.

Is weight loss a good fitness goal?

“Weight loss seems very easy to do and like a great goal, but what ends up happening is most people don’t achieve the weight loss goal,” says Hardwick. “This is an issue because if you set a SMART goal to lose 20 pounds in six months, but don’t lose it because of a variety of factors, that is a significant demotivator.”

He notes that many people who are undergoing cancer treatment or in recovery are likely dealing with side effects that may preclude weight loss.

“If you are active and have a healthy diet, you’ll achieve some degree of weight loss,” he explains. “But it’s better to have weight loss as a byproduct of your fitness goals rather than the primary outcome you’re trying to seek.”

Hardwick suggests setting goals for things you want to do or how you want to feel. For example, maybe you want to spend more time with your grandkids and be able to get down on the floor and play with them.

“You can keep the same weight, but increase muscle mass, decrease fat, feel better and see a change in your pants size,” he says. “These results are more meaningful than just a number on a scale.”

See more fun, feel-good ways to get moving.


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