Roadblocks to Speed Humps: Breaking Through Barriers to Exercise

Kate Williams Cancer and Fatigue, Cancer Survival, Exercise for Cancer, Mental Health, Side Effects

Beginning a new physical activity regime can be an incredibly daunting thing. Not knowing where to start, which types of exercise to do or how to perform them, facing the intimidation of a gym, weather, lack of time, a dislike of exercise and just a general absence of motivation are common things that stand in the way of people moving more. Add to these the difficulties that come with living with (or after) cancer and what is typically a speed hump towards leading an active lifestyle is suddenly looking like a mighty high brick wall.

At MAC we’d like to think we provide you the tools to help you start scaling the wall, if not break through it! Here are 6 of the most common barriers to exercise as named specifically by cancer patients AND some tips on how you can overcome them.

I’m too tired: Aha. – reason A1. Without a doubt this is the most commonly reported issue amongst cancer sufferers. Why would you want to spend what precious energy you have on something that might drain your reserves further? Though it may seem counter-intuitive, exercise undertaken both during the treatment and post-treatment stages has in fact been proven to enhance energy levels. In fact exercise – in combination with psychological therapy – was recently found to be “significantly better than the available pharmaceutical options” at reducing cancer-related fatigue.

It will make me feel worse: Not dissimilar to fatigue, many people assume that exercise will exacerbate their treatment-related side effects such as muscle and joint pain, nausea and lymphedema (to name a few). In fact when delivered in an appropriate and safe manner, physical activity can help ease these issues.

I don’t feel safe: Aside from the usual worry of performing a movement incorrectly and hurting oneself, exercise during treatment comes with unique safety issues. Balance is often compromised due to nerve pain and fatigue, leading to the fear of falling. Certain treatments have a negative impact on bone density, feeding anxiety of fracturing brittle bones. Often concerns simply revolve around the fact that exercise will set people back in their treatment progress. It’s important to know that appropriately prescribed and monitored exercise has been proven safe both during and after cancer treatments and does not impact their effectiveness. In addition, before beginning an exercise program seek the advice of an Accredited Exercise Physiologist who specialises in exercise oncology. We are the most qualified in the business at prescribing an appropriate exercise program to match your individual needs and thus minimize these risks.

I’m not fit enough: Your muscles have wasted, you’re feeling out of breath halfway up the staircase and the mere thought of performing a stretch is enough to make your lower back ache. Starting an exercise regime seems about the least appealing thing on the planet at the moment. Beginning at the right level, and progressing at a gradual pace is the key. For many the starting point may simply be finding ways to move more (for example, taking the opportunity to rake the leaves or vacuum one half of the house) and sit less – everyone can do that! If you’ve been active in the past be realistic in setting exercise-oriented goals, as your body may not be able to cope with the demands you once placed on it. Remember to “start low and go slow”, and be guided by your Exercise Physiologist. Joining an exercise program designed for oncology patients may also be useful in this situation.

I feel self-conscious: It could be argued this is also a barrier amongst the general public, but people dealing with cancer have the additional trepidations in public areas caused by treatment-related weight gain, incontinence or diarrhoea for example. Scarring and stomas can cause angst about using change rooms. Again, consider joining a program specific to people with cancer – many of these people will have similar issues and thus everyone is in the same boat. As another option, you may feel more comfortable performing an activity plan at home (more on this below).

It’s too expensive: Again this is a common all-people excuse, however when you’re also forking out for medical appointments, treatment and other related drugs, this one certainly carries a bit more clout. The good news is you don’t need to purchase a gym membership, as exercise programs can often take place in your very own home or backyard. You don’t even need to buy any equipment for home. After all walking simply requires a pair of shoes, strengthening exercises can be conjured out of the body weight resistance category and flexibility activities needs only patience and technique guidance.

We’d love to hear your feedback or any questions you may have on this topic – feel free to email me on kate@movementagainstcancer.com.au .

American College of Sports Medicine. 2010. American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable on Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 42(7), pp. 1409-26.

MacMilan Cancer Support 2016, What motivates people with cancer to get active?, Macmilan Cancer Support, retrieved 6 April 2017,

Mustian, K, Alfano, C, Heckler, C, et al. 2017, ‘Comparision of pharmaceutical, psychological and exercise treatments for cancer-related fatigue’, JAMA Oncology, Published online March 2, 2017, doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2016.6914