Exercising is an important component to a healthy lifestyle but it doesn’t only have preventative powers. Staying physically active after you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and even during cancer treatment can enhance physical well being, reduce the side-effects of treatment, and spur recovery.
Research Supports Exercise
According to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), research has not found any harmful effects on cancer patients who engage in moderate exercise. Quite the contrary, it has found that cancer patients who exercised regularly had 40 to 50 percent less fatigue, one of the most common, and most complained about, side effects during cancer treatment. Another side effect that may accompany cancer treatment is feelings of depression, which can also be relieved by exercise, which elevates mood.
Regular physical activity increases general conditioning, joint flexibility, and muscle strength, as well as improves cardiovascular function and protects bones. Many of these things can be impaired by surgery and some therapies. The better physical shape you are in, the better you can recover from treatments like surgery.
Finally, studies have demonstrated that gaining weight during and/or after treatment increases the risk of cancer recurrence, especially for prostate, colon, and breast cancers. Maintaining an exercise routine maintains a healthy lifestyle which is what a cancer survivor needs.
When and How to Exercise
If you had been working out before your cancer diagnosis, simply make sure you continue. If you did not have a regular exercise schedule before your diagnosis, however, the sooner you start, the better. You’ll feel better, you’ll likely need fewer medications and you’ll lower your risk for complications. Be sure to begin before cancer treatment but AFTER you discuss your exercise plans with your doctor to ensure it is safe.
If you have been inactive, don’t begin with intense physical activity. Start with walking and light strength training with weights and then you can build up once your body is comfortable with that. Generally, an effective routine has three parts:
- A cardiovascular workout that gets your heart pumping. This can include walking, swimming, jogging, bicycling, or dancing (this can also help improve flexibility depending on the type of dance you do).
- Strength training to build and tone muscles. The most common way to do this is to lift weights but machines and resistance bands are also options. It is VERY important to receive instruction in strength training if you’ve never done it before as it is very easy to injure yourself with incorrect technique.
- Regular stretching to improve flexibility and keep your joints and muscles limber.
Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days per week, but don’t feel like you have to do it all at once. If you have difficulty doing 30 minutes straight, break it up into two 15 minute aerobic workouts per day. The key is to move and be physically active. Activities like gardening and housework also qualify.
Some hospitals and health clubs offer fitness classes specifically for cancer patients. Be sure to ask about that when discussing your exercise plan with your doctor.