Fitness: Use exercise to fight back against cancer

The benefits of exercising after a cancer diagnosis are big, even if the frequency and intensity of workouts aren’t what they were prior to diagnosis.

Article content

The Canadian Cancer Society states 1.5 million Canadians are living with or beyond cancer. With survival the No. 1 goal, regular exercise may seem low on the list of priorities. But the benefits are big, even if the frequency and intensity of workouts aren’t what they were prior to diagnosis.

More energy, a reduction in treatment-related symptoms like nausea, swelling and insomnia and a reduced risk of cancer reoccurrence are just some of the reasons why cancer patients and survivors are encouraged to be active. Yet even the most dedicated exercisers are often overwhelmed by the thought of heading to the gym while simultaneously battling cancer.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

Admittedly, not everyone’s treatment plan results in a similar set of difficult-to-manage side-effects. But fatigue is one of the most universal complaints of cancer patients and survivors. Unrelenting, especially in the immediate days post-treatment, there’s often little in the way of energy, much less motivation, to pull on workout clothes.

But months of being sedentary results in its own set of problems. Cardiovascular fitness deteriorates as does muscular strength, which makes even simple chores of everyday life harder to accomplish. Suddenly, you’re winded going up stairs and walking to the corner store. Cutting grass and raking leaves feels like running 10K. Even lifting a load of laundry or picking up a grandchild are harder than they used to be.

Then there’s the mental aspect of dealing with cancer. The sheer amount of space it takes in your life can cause anxiety to spike and put a pause on important friendships and social connections. Exercise can help, and not just by taking the edge off of some of cancer’s more uncomfortable side-effects. Study after study has shown that physical activity improves quality of life, which is reason enough to find a way to exercise during and after treatment. But exercise includes a wide range of activities, so researchers have been exploring whether some forms of exercise are better than others at improving the lives of cancer patients and survivors.

Article content

Advertisement 3

Article content

Then there’s the important question about whether other variables related to exercise make a difference. Frequency, time and intensity are the backbone of any effective exercise prescription, so it’s worthwhile exploring how hard, how often and how long those living with cancer should work out.

Ideally, any exercise intervention should focus on limiting the decline in strength and cardiovascular fitness due to cancer and its treatments. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about training for a marathon or bodybuilding competition, but rather staying active enough to conserve enough strength and stamina to keep the chores of everyday life from feeling like ascending Mount Everest. Maintaining a measure of independence during a time when cancer takes over all other aspects of life is a small but significant step toward preserving a sense of normalcy.

Not surprisingly, cardiovascular workouts proved effective at maintaining overall health and wellness while moderating several of the most uncomfortable side-effects related to cancer treatments. And it didn’t seem to matter the type or intensity. The goal is to raise the heart rate for a sustained period several times a week. Keep in mind that you should gauge intensity not by how much you sweat but by how you feel. Exercise, in any of its many forms, should feel challenging to sustain. So, if you feel like you’re working hard, you probably are. And depending on the level of fatigue, the effort it takes to walk, run, cycle or swim will vary considerably. So don’t judge intensity by pace, but rather by how you feel on a ranking of 1-10, trying to maintain an intensity that hovers around 5 on days when energy stores are low and 7 or higher on days when you have a bit more pep in your step.

Advertisement 4

Article content

And don’t forget to add strength training to your routine. Cancer patients and survivors all noted the benefits of gaining back some of the strength lost between cancer diagnosis and the end of treatment. More than the stamina gained from cardio workouts, the absence the weakness contributed significantly to quality of life.

Other forms of exercise like yoga, tai chi, Pilates etc. aren’t as well studied, but preliminary results suggest that they, too, mitigate the worst of the side-effects of cancer and contribute positively to quality of life.

It’s worth noting adherence to exercise among cancer patients involved in studies is high. It’s not unusual to see upward of 75 per cent of study subjects stick with their exercise routine throughout the full length of the intervention — a testament to its effectiveness. Keep in mind, however, that the high adherence rate is for supervised exercise programs, which is an important distinction. Exercising through and after cancer treatments shouldn’t be hit or miss.

Fitness classes designed specifically for cancer patients and survivors or a qualified personal trainer is the best choice when it comes to guiding you through the many phases of treatment. Cancer wellness centres are a good resource for fitness classes and trainers who understand the specific needs of those who have received a cancer diagnosis.

So, if you, or someone you know, is battling cancer, hiring a personal trainer or registering for a group exercise class is a worthwhile investment in overall health and wellness. Being physically and mentally strong during and after a cancer diagnosis is one of the best ways to battle back against a disease that affects all aspects of daily life.

Related Stories

Advertisement 5

Article content

Article content


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

    Advertisement 1

Originally posted 2023-10-15 16:23:13.