Health & Wellness

The Best Exercises For Cancer Patients

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Cancer sucks.

It takes a toll not only on your physical health but your mental health as well. Talk to anyone who has ever had to receive a cancer diagnosis, and they’ll agree: it effing sucks.

While the traditional mindset for cancer treatment is rest and recovery, new science suggests that physical activity as part of your cancer care plan can greatly improve your overall health and survivorship. A 2018 study by the American College of Sports Medicine found evidence that regular exercise not only lowered your chance of getting cancer but improved the odds of survival after diagnosis. 

The oncology field is beginning to recognize that movement and activity in itself act as medicine. 

Exercise, Movement and Overall Health

Exercise and movement are not just important to those undergoing cancer treatment. According to the Mayo Clinic, too much rest, or excessive sitting, can cause a whole host of medical issues, including hypertension, obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease and cancer itself. 

With the average American spending 13-15 hours a day in a chair, it’s important to take extra steps to add movement to your daily routine. Simple additions like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking your car at the furthest point in a parking lot can help add movement without having to think too much about it. 

Furthermore, the Blue Zones research and studies found that one of the nine common traits of the longest living cultures in the world was daily movement. Also on the list- healthy eating and a glass of wine a day.

Benefits of Exercise and Movement for Cancer Patients

One of the main benefits of incorporating an exercise program into your cancer treatment plan is improving your mental health. Physical activity can reduce depression and anxiety symptoms, which can become overwhelming during the cancer journey. 

Keeping an active body can also help reduce your need to depend on caregivers for help with the regular activities of daily living. Retaining as much muscle strength as possible can help with balance and improve blood flow to your lower extremities, reducing the risk of blood clots. 

If the cancer patient was previously an active person, continuing the activity allows a sense of normalcy and further impacts your quality of life for the better. Additional side effects of an exercise program include an improvement to your confidence, an improvement in your weight, regulation of sleep and reduced fatigue. Continued research and clinical trials will need to be done to accurately determine additional benefits and statistical outcomes of the addition of exercise programs and movement to cancer treatment plans. 

So what exercises are good for those battling cancer? 

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Exercise Programs for Cancer Patients

You should always follow a health care professional’s physical activity guidelines while undergoing any kind of medical treatment. Be sure to check with your doctor or oncologist before starting any physical activity plan. 

Before Diagnosis

As previously discussed, movement and physical activity are vital to a happy, healthy life. 

Incorporating exercise into your daily practices can help reduce your risk of cancer in the first place. For example, a healthy weight can greatly reduce your chance of developing prostate cancer and keeps your prostate health good in general. 

You do not need to take up pumping iron, train to run a marathon or get into CrossFit to be physically active. You should focus on activities that elevate your heart rate, and do them for at least 30 minutes, three to four times per week. This could be something as simple as going for a brisk walk, dancing around your house while you clean, or chasing your kiddo around for an epic game of tag; think moderate-intensity movements that get your heart pumping and leave you a little winded.

Once that feels comfortable, try adding in activities like strength training or resistance training to help develop muscle strength will give you an excellent base for a healthy lifestyle. 

Related: How to Start an Exercise Routine (Plus, Surprising Truths No One is Telling You)

During Treatment

Real talk. Some cancer treatments are extremely debilitating. If you are undergoing chemo or radiation therapy or any infusion-based treatment, you will most likely feel pretty terrible. An exercise program may feel completely out of reach at this time, especially if you are battling weight loss and fatigue. Honestly, on some days, even walking may be out of reach here. 

During this stage of your cancer journey, you are going to want to be extremely careful about not overdoing it and be in good communication with your doctor or oncologist. Your body is having war raged on its immune system, and sometimes rest is going to be the best thing you can do for yourself. 

It’s important to be mindful that different types of cancer will impose their own limitations on your movement capabilities either due to their treatment protocols or impact on your body. Treatment for lung and digestive cancers or colorectal cancer can severely reduce a patient’s weight and muscle tone. An advanced cancer diagnosis will also limit the activities your clinicians will recommend you participate in. 

If you were already physically active before diagnosis, you may experience a reduced range of motion, lower activity level and lose the ability to complete high-intensity workouts. Lowering the intensity of the exercises you are used to doing may be the only modification required. 

If you were previously living a pretty sedentary lifestyle, start slow, with generous warm-ups, low impact exercises and simple resistance and flexibility exercises. At this stage of your cancer treatment, the mental health benefits of movement are one of the targets. The time to rebuild your physical body will come at a later time. 

Keep these types of exercises in mind if you are a beginner:

Studies have shown that adding aerobic exercise can help reduce cancer-related fatigue. This may sound counterintuitive, but if you are experiencing tiredness that does not improve with rest and sleep, movement, even small amounts, may be able to combat the feeling of fatigue

And, never underestimate the positive impact of just getting outside and breathing fresh air. A walk, no matter how slow or how short, can do wonders to improve mental well-being. 

Post Treatment 

After your treatment has ended, you may be able to increase your activity levels fairly soon depending on the prognosis and treatment you received. More and more studies show that regular exercise programs can greatly reduce cancer recurrence and length of cancer rehabilitation.

The American Cancer Society recommends this for cancer survivors: 

  • Avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activities, including physical activities, as soon as possible
  • Try to incorporate two and a half hours of moderate to high-intensity exercise per week.
  • Add strength training exercises at least two times a week, focusing on different muscle groups.

Healing your body is going to take time. Many survivors report that it takes a year or more to feel like they have regained the strength and muscle mass that was lost during their cancer treatment. 

Exercise Precautions

Caution must be taken when adding an exercise program to your life, especially while undergoing cancer treatment. Be mindful of the following, and again, check with your doctor before you begin any exercise program

  • Peripheral Neuropathy – this is numbness in your hands and feet and may make balance difficult
  • Osteoporosis – age and certain bone cancers may leave a patient with weaker bones. This makes a fall more likely to end in a broken bone. 
  • Weight loss – If you experienced significant weight loss, getting back to a healthy body weight will be important before attempting any vigorous fitness routine.
  • Steer clear of public gyms and locker rooms until your immune system is fully functioning. This is especially important now during the  COVID pandemic

Call on Your Tribe

No one can battle cancer without a little help from their tribe (or whatever you call them- posse, coven, family, circle) during this time. A supportive network of other people helping you keep a positive mindset and assist in navigating the complex medical process is crucial to your well-being. 

I’ve watched friends and loved ones succumb to cancer. I’ve also witnessed loved ones go from cancer patient to cancer survivor. Most recently, my stepmom, who I can happily call a breast cancer survivor. I can attest first hand to the healing power a supportive circle can be. 

If you or a loved one is currently battling cancer, check in with your oncologist or care team about receiving a referral to an exercise specialist or physical therapist to add physical activity to your current and long-term care plan. These professionals can tailor effective exercise sessions based on your current fitness level and allow you to enjoy the positive impact of exercise while undergoing treatment. 

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Erin Squire

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