To most people the idea of taking part in exercise means getting sweaty and out of breath, with a pumping heart rate, lots of hard work, and feeling like you’re going to faint. That thing we all shy away from. That thing that every January we swear we will start again. We join a gym and pay the fee, go twice in the first week, feeling really smug, then we stop. Meanwhile, the gym owners reap the financial rewards of our hard labour by doing nothing. But what if I was to say it didn’t have to be like that. What if there was a way of exercising that was far less stressful. Well there is. It’s called moving. Moving your arms, moving your legs, moving any part of your body.
The definition of exercise from the Oxford English Dictionary is “activity requiring physical effort, carried out to sustain or improve health and fitness”. Notice that it says “improve health and fitness”, not just fitness. This is what really matters, as health is related to both the physical and mental well-being. The question to ask yourself is: if I do this… “does it make me feel better”. If you ask any marathon runner how they are feeling during the race they will more than likely say it’s not particularly nice, but at the end of the race they will tell you how brilliant it was and how great they feel. I’m not suggesting in any way you go and run a marathon, but I am suggesting you find the “exercise” that’s right for you and makes you feel good. It will be out there, somewhere, whether it’s walking around your local park or cycling, roller skating, dancing, jogging, swimming, Pilates, yoga, Zumba, tai chi, karate, judo, tennis, netball, hockey, the list is endless! One of those things will make you feel happy just for a few minutes – pick that one to start.
But how to start?!? That is the question. Treatment for any kind of cancer or illness is often a barrier to exercising for many reasons – fatigue after chemotherapy or radiotherapy, or because of long term medication, restriction of movement due to surgery, low self-esteem, depression from the diagnosis and treatment, pain. The key is to listen to your body. Fatigue unfortunately is a self-perpetuating problem. When you’re fatigued you move less. Your muscle breaks down, and your aerobic fitness diminishes, which makes you more fatigued. It’s not in your head, it is actually happening. Exercise can help break the cycle, but only if taken in moderation, with realistic ideals and with self-awareness of your body. So you’ve decided you want to be fitter, need to be fitter, and you want to feel better. The biggest mistake most people make when trying to start exercising is setting themselves impossible goals. Goals are great, but only if they are achievable and sensible. Saying you will go to the gym 3 times a week and exercise for an hour, when you haven’t done anything properly for months is not going to happen – even for someone without a cancer diagnosis it’s unlikely to be sustainable. Then, when you don’t achieve your goal you will feel guilty, annoyed, low and un-happy – and really we don’t need any more of the negative feelings do we?!
Start small. 5 minutes a day. 2.5 minutes out, 2.5 minutes back. Just walking. Not a fast walk or a hill walk, just a walk. Sound ridiculous? Well 5 times 7 days is 35 minutes, which is 35 minutes you didn’t do the week before. Then next week add on a minute each day, 6 minutes 7 days is 42minutes, then the next week 7 minutes every day for 7 days. Before you know it you’ll be exercising for over an hour every week. If you can already manage 10 minutes a day then great! So tomorrow do 12! It’s simple, it’s effective, and it’s achievable. I like to think of learning to exercise as the same as learning a language. You can’t get it all straight away. You have to teach yourself, teach your body, and teach your mind how to enjoy and progress one step at a time. Most importantly, don’t give yourself a hard time if it goes wrong on the odd day. Just pick it up again the next. It’s only one part of healthy living and should become a lifestyle choice, not a chore.
By Ali Potter