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Exercise is an important part of staying healthy before, during and after cancer. You will feel very different on the day after you complete treatment than you will a few months or years later. The way you exercise needs to be different too. Learn how to customize your exercise routine to match your energy and fitness level.

Customized exercise is about changing an exercise movement to fit what you can do and how you feel on a given day. This is sometimes called tailoring your exercise routine.

Start by choosing a form of exercise. There are many different ways to stay active. Find an activity you might enjoy and adapt it to match your abilities. The following suggestions will help you read how you feel at any given moment then customize your chosen exercise to match your feeling. Use these five steps to customize your workout.

Step I: Customize

If it feels good, do it! If it feels bad, customize it! This movement motto works for all levels and abilities. You can replace the word “good” with safe or comfortable and the word “bad” with unsafe or uncomfortable. If it feels safe or comfortable, do it. If it feels unsafe or uncomfortable, customize it. Keep these things in mind:

  • If you feel sick, exercise may help decrease nausea. Exercise when you feel sick should be gentle, slow and brief.
  • If you are fatigued or extremely tired, gentle, brief exercise may give you energy. You can always do more on a day when you are less tired.
  • If you are not sleeping well at night, exercise during the day may help you sleep better.

Step II: Keep Moving

Your goal is to move in a way that works for you. Instead of saying “I can’t,” learn to say, “I can.” Figure out how to customize movements so they feel good. Keep trying little changes until you find the action that is right for your body. Remind yourself that it does not matter what others are doing or what you used to do in the past. Your muscles, level of fatigue, nausea and bone strength may be different now. Anything you do to improve your current physical health will be valuable.

Step III: Energy - Aim for Gain vs. Drain 

How do you customize your exercise? Start by deciding how much time and effort you can put into exercise each day based on how you feel that day. Then work on doing the movement in a way that feels good. Adjust the movements as you go along so that they feel good and safe to you. Aim to keep moving during your exercise time.

Choose Your Energy Level

Determine your level of energy. Use a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being absolutely no energy and 10 being totally energetic. Choose the length of time or type of exercise you are going today based on your energy level. Keep a short list of different workouts for different levels of energy. For example, you may have one workout you do when you are feeling 0-2, another for 8-10 and others for those days in between. The purpose is to work with your body, not against it. You want to exercise at your capacity, not below it or above it. Exercise should help you gain, not drain, energy.

Choose Your Fitness Level

A healthy exercise program needs to match your fitness level. Here is an example of how you tailor exercise for your fitness level.

  • Low fitness: Walk at a comfortable pace for 10 minutes around a mall or your neighborhood. Bring a friend and make sure you can talk as you walk. 
  • Intermediate Fitness: Walk at a brisk pace, increasing walking time by 5 minutes every day or two. Use music with a good beat in a personal music player to help you increase your speed and time.
  • High fitness: Add weights, power-walk, jog or run. Work on increasing distance, time and speed.

Step IV: Talk Test

While you exercise, take a moment to notice if you are working too hard. Try talking in full sentences. If you can talk in full sentences without getting short of breath, you are working at a safe level. If you cannot talk in full sentences without getting short of breath, you are working too hard, and maybe even at unsafe levels.

Step V: Deep Breathing - LOW and SLOW

Learn to breathe low in your belly, at a slow pace. Deep breathing relaxes tension and energizes you. Oxygen allows your muscles to work. The goal is to feel good, be safe and gain energy!