And Reap the Benefits of Exercise
by Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN
The new paradigm for cancer survivors highlights the importance of staying active to help reduce cancer-related fatigue, pain, and other side effects of cancer treatments. This new model also promotes healthy survivorship and improved quality of life. While, historically, people with cancer were told to rest and avoid exercise, mounting research now demonstrates the benefits of maintaining or adopting a physically active lifestyle during treatment.
Who Can Benefit?
Cancer survivorship experts agree that staying active is safe and can help alleviate certain side effects and improve quality of life during cancer treatment and beyond. In addition to helping fight fatigue and reduce pain, exercise during treatment has been shown to help preserve muscle mass, prevent unwanted weight gain, and boost fitness levels, muscle strength, and flexibility.
While a large percentage of the research on exercise during cancer treatment focuses on women with breast cancer, studies looking at survivors with other diagnoses are growing. For example, a recent study found that not only was resistance exercise safe for people with head and neck cancer undergoing radiation treatment, but it also resulted in reduced fatigue and improved quality of life for these survivors.
Another study showed that six weeks of a home-based fitness program, which included walking and balance exercises, following surgery benefitted non-small cell lung cancer survivors. The survivors who participated in this exercise program reported reduced levels of cancer-related fatigue while rehabilitating from surgery.
Exercise is beneficial for both older and younger people undergoing cancer treatment. A study of older individuals with cancer found that exercise reduced memory loss, improved fatigue, and helped ease the total burden of treatment side effects.
11 Ways to Sneak Exercise into Your Daily Routines
1. Walk your dog.
2. Play with your children or grandchildren at the park.
3. Do light stretching or strength exercises at home before getting into the shower each day.
4. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
5. Use public transportation or walk to run errands.
6. Get off the bus or train one stop early to walk the rest of the way to your destination.
7. Get up from your desk and move around for five minutes every hour.
8. Switch out your desk chair or recliner for a stability ball.
9. Sign up for a fun fitness class with a friend.
10. Carry your groceries in a basket instead of using a shopping cart.
11. Do calf raises or bicep curls with 16 ounces (1 pound) of canned, boxed, or bottled goods while waiting in line at the grocery store.
How to Get Started
Moderate intensity exercise is best for cancer survivors, as it provides the most benefits with the least likelihood of harm. You should adjust your exercise intensity and duration so that you’re active without overdoing it. Intense exercise or “overtraining” has been shown to actually suppress the immune system. Start slowly and build up intensity and duration gradually. It’s important to balance activity and rest by taking days off or routinely scaling back the intensity or duration of exercise.
Walking for three to five hours per week at a moderate pace is a great way to stay physically active, and it has been shown to reduce recurrence risk of some cancers. You don’t have to do it all at once, though. Three 10-minute walks can be just as effective as one 30-minute walk. Yoga has also received attention for helping reduce anxiety, stress, and depression.
It’s a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting an exercise program. Once you have clearance from your doctor, you might consider seeking out a personal trainer or fitness instructor who has experience working with cancer survivors. Many hospitals and cancer centers offer yoga, Pilates, Qigong, aquatics, strength training, cardio, and other types of group exercise classes you can try.
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Stacy Kennedy is a senior clinical nutritionist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, and the nutritionist for Reboot Your Life. She also works in private practice and is a certified personal trainer and fitness instructor through the American College of Sports Medicine.
The American College of Sports Medicine offers a special certification in oncology in collaboration with the American Cancer Society. To find a certified trainer in your area, use the ACSM ProFinder service at certification.acsm.org/pro-finder, or call (317) 637-9200, ext. 115.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2013.