Doctoral student in Kinesiology
Physical Activity Sciences
University of Montréal
After I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia six years ago, I would often compare myself to the physical abilities I had had before—when I could bike two hours a day to get to work (even in the winter!) and win kayak races. I would also compare myself to those around me: my sister walking so fast and my boyfriend scaling hills like a mountain goat.
But my reality is very different from the one I had before, and from that of the people around me. And that’s OK. It’s only hard if I refuse to see things for the way they are now. My body is slower. It needs to rest more often and for longer. My body knows what is best for it, and when I say, “No! I’m still just as capable as before,” I only cause myself pain and suffering. It takes humility to slow down and respect your body’s abilities. You have to do it for yourself and, sometimes, you have to do it despite pressure from those around you who don’t remember—or don’t want to remember—that things have changed. That being said, physical abilities improve and change, too! You have to develop a keen sense of your body’s signs saying, “Yes, now we can go further,” instead of trying to ignore it—because it will always get the last word.
As part of my doctoral research in Physical Activity Sciences at CHU Sainte-Justine, I work throughout the care process with children who have different kinds of cancer, until they return to “normal” activities. I see them compare themselves to what they could do before, too. It’s important to grieve, to take the time to adapt. But when you find your own rhythm and respect your body, life is so much sweeter!
Yes, physical activity is important—for everyone. It’s been proven time and again to improve physical abilities, prevent multiple diseases and help with stress, anxiety and depression. The changes that we are all going through right now have brought challenges of all shapes and sizes into our daily lives, and we have to prioritize our mental health.
That goes double for people living with cancer or in remission. Studies have shown that cancer treatments have a negative effect on the heart, lungs, muscles and all the other systems in the body. Meanwhile, physical activity has been shown to have a protective effect on the body. It helps not only to prevent the late and chronic side effects of cancer treatments but also to improve quality of life during and after that difficult time.
The good news is that any amount of physical activity is beneficial. Even two minutes—even one! There is no minimum. Any physical activity can benefit you when it is within your body’s capabilities. So, where should you start? Try an activity that you already like. Lifestyle changes are easier to adopt and maintain if you enjoy them. If you like bird watching, take a walking route that includes great places to spot birds. If you like painting, reading, or knitting, go for a walk to find a nice place to enjoy your hobby. Take a new route each time or find your favourite. And if you cannot go outside, take yoga classes adapted to your abilities or look up training videos online that are fun and fit your rhythm. Sometimes, everyday activities can feel just as intense as traditional exercise—doing laundry, running errands, going shopping or cooking a meal. Depending on the level of intensity you can handle on a given day, any of these can be a physical activity equivalent to walking. It all depends on our abilities in the moment.
There are ways to control intensity. Many articles on physical activity during and after cancer referred to intensities between 50 and 70 per cent of predicted cardiac capacity. This range of intensity is considered moderate to high. In concrete terms, if you’re too tired to hold a conversation with a friend, you’re over 70%. However, it’s not dangerous to reach intensity levels over 70%. Your body will tell you if it’s too much or just enough for that particular day. This might mean that you feel more pain or are more tired than usual in the days following the exercise session.
Remember that an activity that you like and that your body is capable of doing will be much more enjoyable and easier to integrate into your routine than an activity that you don’t like and makes you suffer. Also, know that all types of physical activity are valid—the important thing is that their intensity is right for you. Use your imagination, follow your heart and listen to your body!