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Does Exercise Really Help?

During Cancer Treatment

by Lora Packel, MS, PT, CCS

Wellness image

Coping with the physical and emotional effects of cancer treatment is a full-time job. Unfortunately for most people, this new full-time job is layered upon other re­sponsibilities that continue despite cancer treatments. Competing tasks, such as childcare, employment, and attending to one’s marriage, leave little time to take care of your own needs.

Exercise during your treatment can help you manage these responsibilities and contribute to your overall well-being. New and exciting research has found many positive effects of physical activity during treatment. These benefits include reducing cancer-related fatigue, mini­mizing loss of fitness, improving mood, and reducing the risks of recurrence for certain cancers.

Fatigue is a pervasive side effect of cancer and its treatments, affecting 50 to 100 percent of people during treatment and up to 56 percent of survivors. Cancer-related fatigue has been defined as “the perception of unusual tiredness that varies in pattern or severity and has a negative impact on ability to function in people who have or have had cancer.”

For those undergoing chemotherapy, fatigue often occurs around days seven to fourteen of the chemotherapy cycle and then improves between cycles. For those receiving radiation, fatigue often increases over the course of treatment, with the most fatigue toward the end of the radiation sessions. To minimize treatment-related fatigue, a person can exercise at a moderate intensity to reap positive effects.

To reap the benefits of exercise during treatment, you should aim for a moderate intensity program.

In addition to reducing fatigue, exer­cise has been shown to improve aerobic capacity, strength, and overall health-related quality of life during treatment. People who exercise during treatment have less anxiety and improved mood. In certain cancers, exercise may reduce the recurrence of disease. There is build­ing evidence that physical activity may help those with colon or breast cancer reduce their risk of a disease recurrence.

To reap the benefits of exercise during treatment, you should aim for a moderate intensity program. There are a number of ways to determine if your activity is in the moderate range. A sim­ple measure is your ability to talk, but not sing, during exercise. This is not the most accurate way to measure exercise intensity, but it will give you a general idea of how hard you are working. You can also use the Borg Scale of perceived exertion, which uses numbers and words to describe how you feel during exercise. Finally, you can take your heart rate during exercise to determine if you are performing moderate intensity exercise. To calculate your training zone, use the following formula:

  • Maximum heart rate = 220 – your age
  • (Max HR – Resting HR) x .5 + Rest­ing HR = low end of training zone
  • (Max HR – Resting HR) x .7 + Rest­ing HR = higher end of training zone

When exercising, you should aim to have your heart rate in the training zone calculated above. If your heart rate is below this range, increase your inten­sity by swinging your arms, speeding up, or walking uphill. If your heart rate is above this range, slow down!

When exercising in the moderate intensity range, each person should aim to accumulate 150 minutes of exercise each week. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Since cancer treat­ments are time consuming, many people break down their exercise sessions into three 10-minute sessions each day. Exercise during treatment may be difficult to manage, but there are ways to increase your odds of following through. First, gain the support to exercise from those around you, including your medi­cal team. Second, view exercise as an essential part of your recovery plan. If exercise is moved up on the priority list, you are more likely to follow through. Third, create a reasonable exercise schedule, given the many demands on your time. Finally, grab a partner who will exercise with you and keep you motivated.

Exercise during treatment is an es­sential component to your recovery plan that can help mediate the side ef­fects of treatment and improve your mood. However, cancer treatments can and do affect your ability to exer­cise. Before starting any program, consult with your medical team to determine if there are any days when you shouldn’t exercise or when you should exercise at a lower intensity.

Start today and schedule in some time to help yourself heal.

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Lora Packel is an Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, PA.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2011.