If you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer or are undergoing cancer treatment, it’s important to know the safest and most effective ways to care for your physical health. Historically, healthcare providers have recommended that patients with cancer rest and take a break from physical activity. This is still a valid recommendation if it hurts to move, or if physical activity causes rapid heart rate or shortness of breath.
However, recent studies have shown that certain moderate forms of exercise during cancer treatment are not only safe and possible, but can also provide benefits including improved physical well-being and quality of life. Studies have also shown that too much rest can be detrimental to health, leading to loss of body function, muscle weakness and reduced range of motion.
Research has established there are virtually zero negative effects of moderate exercise for patients with cancer. In fact, patients who engaged in regular exercise experienced 40-50 percent less fatigue than those who didn’t. Since fatigue is the most common complaint among patients being treated for cancer, this is a major benefit.
What’s more, regular exercise has multiple positive side effects. It increases muscle strength and joint flexibility, improves cardiovascular function and protects bones. It also impacts mood, potentially helping alleviate feelings of depression that can accompany a cancer diagnosis. Patients with cancer who exercise typically feel better, likely need fewer medications and have a lower risk for complications.
Perhaps most importantly, exercise helps control weight. This is incredibly important, since studies show that excessive weight gain during and after cancer treatment increases risk of recurrence, especially for breast, colon and prostate cancers.
More benefits of exercising during cancer treatment may include:
- Improved balance, lowering risk of falls and broken bones
- Maintenance of muscle mass and strength
- Lower risk of heart disease
- Lower risk of osteoporosis
- Improved blood flow to legs and lower risk of blood clots
- Increased personal independence
- Increased self esteem
- Lower anxiety and depression
- Less fatigue
- Weight control
- Less nausea
- Better quality of life
Before implementing an exercise regimen, consult your healthcare provider to confirm it will be safe for you. Remember to start slow and progress as you feel comfortable doing so. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) recommends shooting for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week. If you don’t have the energy or ability to exercise for a full 30 minutes, break it up into three 10-minute sessions per day.
Try low-impact exercises like brisk walking, jogging, swimming or bicycling. Tone and build your muscles with strength training by lifting weights, working with a machine circuit or implementing resistance bands. As always, make sure to stretch before and after your workout to keep your muscles and joints limber. Finally, check with local health clubs and hospitals; some offer exercise classes designed for patients with cancer.
Remember to be gentle with your body and don’t push it too far. Rest when you need to, and exercise as you feel able.
Visit the Goshen Health Center for Cancer Care to learn more about caring for your physical health during cancer treatment.