Episode 289 – How Do You Start an Exercise Program During Cancer Treatments?

Written by Jonathan

If you’ve been listening for a while we appreciate your continued support and if you’re new to the show, welcome and thanks for stopping by. When most people think about fitness they think of the specific exercises they need to do and they think about having the right equipment to get the most effective workout, but rarely do people take a step back to look at the mental components and the behaviours around fitness that not only help you get faster, stronger or more mobile, but also keep you consistent and motivated. That’s what this show’s all about,  we hope you get some valuable information that is both useful and insightful, that will help you be the healthiest and most active version of yourself. Let’s get on it.


A few years ago I started running the fitness fundamentals course at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation where I work with people that have either gone through some form of cancer treatment or have recently completed their cancer treatments and they want to either start exercising or get back into exercising again. When going through cancer treatments almost everyone experiences unfavourable reactions to chemotherapy or intense radiation, it’s not uncommon to have surgeries that permanently affect your body and the lack of energy or sleepiness can be overwhelming, not to mention all the different psychological effects it can have on you. All this to be said once a person has dealt with these changes their goals and abilities are going to be different, which means most likely their exercises will have to be different or at least modified, today we’re answering this question, how do you start an exercise program when your physical abilities have become different or restricted?


I’m not sure how many of you have gone through some form of cancer treatment or had to deal with cancer in someway, but I’m sure most of you know someone or probably have someone close to you that have gone through the treatment process and one thing you’ll notice is that it really changes a person, their outlook, their perception of life, their perception of their abilities and often their actual abilities change as well. But it’s important to understand that once a person goes through the traumatic experience of dealing with cancer, that although their abilities are going to be different they’re not a broken person. Your abilities may be different, but you’re not a broken person that is incapable of physical activity or exercise and it’s why I start every Fitness Fundamentals session by asking this question,


What’s the difference between your fitness training and the training of a professional athlete?


What’s the difference between your fitness training and the training of a professional athlete?

Of course a look of disbelief crosses everyone’s face and the participants will say things like well athletes are stronger and they’re faster. To which I agree sure they may be stronger and they may be faster, but those are physical characteristics, what’s the difference in your fitness training?  Of course there are no answers by this point just a few pensive and sometimes confused looks and I give them the answer, the truth….there is no difference. Of course shock and awe covers their faces and many of them go to swiftly interject to which I more swiftly ask them to let me explain.


Sure, professional athletes are probably stronger, maybe they can move faster and it might look like they exercise at a higher intensity than you can.


At this point their facial expressions say, we’re nothing like professional athletes.  To which I’ll say, the truth is, there is no difference between you and a professional athlete because we follow the exact same process,  


  • We figure out why you want to exercise
  • We work together to figure out your goals
  • We do an assessment to see what your starting point is
  • We build a fitness program for you to do, and
  • We adjust that fitness program as we go along


The exact same way as we would for a professional athlete, the exact same way as we would for someone who’s had a heart attack, the exact same way we would for an executive of a multinational company and yes the exact same way as we would for someone dealing with cancer. Every single one of you, sitting in here right now has an inner athlete inside of you that’s waiting to come out, of course professional athletes are probably going to be faster and stronger, but that doesn’t mean you can’t work hard and put in the same effort a professional athlete might.


We all have these barriers that we put up in our minds about things we can and can’t do. Sometimes these are legitimate barriers, if you’re in your 50’s you probably missed the window to become the world’s strongest man or woman, if you can’t use your legs running a marathon is out of the question, but most of the time if we dig deep enough these barriers are just a fabrication in our minds and not actual barriers, I can’t train like an athlete I have cancer, I can’t run a marathon, I had a heart attack or I can’t exercise because I can’t afford a gym membership, I can’t exercise because I don’t feel like it.  These can be barriers in our minds but there are always workarounds.


I work with a client that has Multiple Myeloma, a relatively rare form of blood cancer. Once diagnosed about 50% of people live 4 to 5 years if they undergo treatment. So the prognosis isn’t great, but the outlook is long enough that you still have enough time, you may want to evaluate how you’re living and how you’re exercising and that’s exactly what my client did. Instead of throwing in the proverbial towel he decided he was going to make some changes because he knew being in shape would give him the best chance of not only living the longest with the cancer, but also surviving the absolutely crushing treatment as well. He’s using his diagnosis as an opportunity to otherwise try and become a healthier person to survive and be functional enough he can be there for his family as long as possible. This makes his ‘why’ pretty clear and has allowed him to set this goal, using a combination of strength training, walking and cycling he wants to do something active everyday, that’s it do at least one active thing everyday.


After we assessed his abilities I wrote him a strength program that he devotes a full effort to 3 times a week and he alternates between walking and cycling on non-strength training days. Since he was someone who had never exercised before and was going through treatments this proved to be a little overly ambitious, so we shortened the strength program and modified some exercises to easier variations and decreased the walking distance until he started to adapt.

Specifically speaking he did two sets of exercises instead of 3 sets, I removed split squats and put in SB Wall Squats, I had him move to push-ups on the stairs instead of kneeling on the floor and on exercises where he was lifting weight we decreased the weight, increased the reps and I had him really focus on his form and the quality of his muscle contraction to make sure he was doing everything properly.


Then as he progressed we re-introduced harder strength exercises, I had him lifting heavier weights and I introduced him to doing walk/runs at his request. Once he got going, was staying consistent and building his confidence, he set a mini-goal of doing 2k this past spring, which he did and now 5k this coming fall, which he is on his way to doing.


A month ago he went back to work and starting travelling around the world, this meant we reassessed and modified his workout so he could do it on the road. Now he’s more independant and constantly assessing himself and giving me feedback as we go and we work together to come up with exercise solutions that will work for him. Constantly doing and adjusting as required. Which given his circumstances really is the most active he could have become.    


When you step back in your life and think not just about why you want to exercise, but also why you want to be a healthier person and the types of things that need to happen for you to be that healthier person. What activities can you do or changes can you make to support that, and coming from that place what are your goals going to be and what activities do you need to do to support those goals? Once you’ve figured that out, then you can assess your starting point and all the things you need to take into consideration:

  • Am I physically and emotionally ready to start at that activity
  • Where can I do it, does my schedule allow it
  • Once you start then you can assess and adjust as required
  • As you go, constantly evaluate what you’re doing:
        • Are these the right exercises, are they helping?
        • How can I modify them?
        • Is it easy for me to stay consistent, if not why not what can I change?
        • Is this enjoyable enough for me, how could I make it more enjoyable?
        • Do I have support, is there any way I could get more?


Constantly evaluating all the aspects of your training program, not just the exercises will be very important in keeping you not only doing the right things for you. But also keeping you challenged, improving and most importantly motivated to continue.  


In answering our question,


How do you start an exercise program when your physical abilities have become restricted?


The exact same way as anyone else.


That’s it for today, thanks for tuning in and stopping by. If you enjoyed or have some feedback for the show please take a minute to leave us a review or send us an email to info@fitnessforfreedom.com I would really appreciate that.



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