Simple exercises may help cancer survivors struggling with peripheral neuropathy, a common cancer treatment side effect that causes muscle weakness, decreased feeling and trouble balancing.
While exercise can’t make peripheral neuropathy go away, studies show it can help minimize pain and improve strength and balance, says Whittney Thoman, an exercise physiologist at MD Anderson.
Talk to your doctor
Thoman stresses the importance of talking to your doctor before starting any new exercise program. He or she may have advice specific to your treatment or cancer.
For most cancer survivors, The American Cancer Society and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend avoiding inactivity and resuming exercise as soon as possible. Survivors should aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise per week. The American Cancer Society also recommends including strength-building exercises in your routine at least two days per week.
In addition, patients who are able to exercise during treatment should do so, but they may need to make adjustments.
Work with a trainer or physical therapist
Once you receive your doctor’s permission to exercise, Thoman suggests meeting with a trainer, exercise physiologist or physical therapist. This way, you can work together to establish your exercise routine and ensure that you’re doing movements correctly.
Use a stable environment
Because neuropathy affects your balance, it’s important to exercise in a stable environment where you’re less likely to fall down or drop something.
Thoman recommends using weightlifting machines. “If you use free weights, you’re more likely to drop them and injure yourself,” Thoman says.
If you want a cardiovascular workout, try a stationary bike rather than a treadmill or elliptical machine.
“Anything where your body is stable is safer,” Thoman says.
Work on balance
To help improve your balance, Thoman recommends doing exercises that will help strengthen your stabilizing muscles.
“It doesn’t have to be anything complicated,” she says. “Try standing on one foot while you brush your teeth. If you mastered that, try standing on one foot with your eyes closed.”
To see results, Thoman recommends completing these exercises two to three times a week.
“Consistency is very important,” she says. This will help you make a habit of exercising. And that will help improve your strength and balance so that you start to see your neuropathy symptoms lessen.
Don’t overdo it
Depending on your cancer treatment, you may need more time to rest between exercise sessions, Thoman says. Give yourself 48 to 72 hours to recover between resistance training sessions.
Following all of these steps can help you ease neuropathy symptoms.
“Exercise can’t undo neuropathy,” Thoman says. “But it can make a big difference when it comes to functionality and daily life.”