Top tips for exercising during chemotherapy

Published: 20 Dec 2017

When you’re undergoing chemotherapy, you may experience certain side-effects, which leave you feeling a bit under the weather. There are several things you can try to help you feel better, one of which is exercise.

Exercising with chemotherapy

However, if you are already an exercise enthusiast, exercising during chemotherapy isn’t always as simple as carrying on with your usual sport or gym routine. You might need to adapt your workout to accommodate the physical and mental changes affecting your body during treatment.

Even if you’re not naturally sporty and do not regularly workout, gentle exercise can clear your mind, give you something to focus on, and improve or alleviate some side-effects of chemotherapy – so long as you’re approaching it in the right way.

To make sure it’s doing you good rather than harm, there are some things you need to consider if you wish to workout while fighting cancer.

When is it safe to exercise during cancer treatment?

While physical activity can benefit the mind and body, there are certain situations in which you should not exercise. For example, it is advisable to rest up if you are struggling with muscle coordination (ataxia) or have a low red blood cell count (anemia).  

There are also some activities that might not be compatible with your type of cancer. For instance, high impact activities are definitely out if you have any sort of bonecancer, while you may need to take extra care working out if you are suffering from numbness or tingling in your hands and feet.

Before you either start a new exercise regime or reprise your old routine, talk through your plans with your doctor to get their approval. They will be able to advise on what sort of exercise is compatible with your treatment and together, you can discuss how your condition is affecting your physical fitness, and choose an exercise routine that works around it. 

How should I adapt my exercise routine when going through chemo?

In addition to discussing your workout regime with your doctor, ruling out any types of exercise that may compromise your health, you may need to dial down the intensity of any physical activity undertaken during or after chemotherapy.

Chemo is a grueling test on your body, so you need to treat it gently during recovery periods. Therefore, you might be better off changing to a lower impact activity such as pilates, yoga or walking, as opposed to your usual gym workout.

Consider also that your immune system is low during chemo, so you might prefer a routine that you can follow indoors or outdoors or at home – rather than visiting public gyms or group classes, where you’ll likely be exposed to more germs and potential diseases.

What should I do if I feel unwell during exercise?

If you feel well enough to try some gentle exercise, but then during the session start feeling ill, make sure you stop immediately – particularly if you’re experiencing symptoms such as chest pain, tightness in your chest or acute shortage of breath.

Sit down, breathe and drink some water, and if you don’t feel better within a couple of minutes, seek medical assistance.

Following the aborted session, make some notes on what you were doing, for how long, and how you felt, to talk through with your doctor before embarking on any further physical activity. They may be able to suggest ways in which you can adapt your exercise plan to safely continue for the rest of your treatment.

It’s not just during exercise that you’re at risk of falling ill, either. Often, cancer sufferers can feel OK at the time of exertion, but really struggle with muscle aches and tiredness afterwards.

To combat the risk of ‘overdoing it’ with physical activity, give yourself plenty of time to recover between exercise sessions. After all, exercise is supposed to help you feel better, not make it harder to bounce back between chemotherapy sessions.

If you’re worried about feeling unwell during exercise, you may want to invite a partner, friend or family member to join you, so someone is on-hand to support you.

Can I exercise while using cold cap treatments?

Many people who use cold caps to combat hair loss continue to exercise during cancer treatment. However it is advisable to mention your exercise routine and how often you work out to your cold cap advisor.

If you are a Penguin Cold Cap user get in touch with our expert advisors, who offer knowledgable and important advice and procedures on exercise related-issues. They can provide top tips such as how to safely style your hair for exercise, managing the heat and sweat produced during exercise, and how to cope with hair washing after exercise.

Lots of people have successfully used Penguin Cold Caps to retain their hair during chemotherapy, and also continued to exercise – ‘radioactive ironman’ Steve Cooper is just one of them! Take a look at Steve’s story.

If you have any of your own tips to share with others, why not join our Facebook group and join in with our capping community?