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Cancer and Exercise
Exercise During Cancer Treatment can Improve Outcomes

Exercise during treatment and live longer.
Exercise during treatment and live longer.

The way people deal with disease has changed significantly. In the past, you would get medicine, lay down and let it work. Rest while your body heals. But that’s not always the best advice. Researchers have found that patients who actively participate in their recovery tend to do better.

Even for something serious as cancer, researchers discovered regular exercise can greatly improve physical and mental health during every phase of treatment. It doesn’t matter if you were active before; you can still benefit from a fitness program. Here’s how they found out.

Researchers tracked the outcomes of 5,807 cancer patients in a study that spanned a dozen years. They found “...beginning a regular recreational physical activity (RPA) program after a cancer diagnosis yields a SIGNIFICANT survival advantage in comparison to patients who remained inactive, and that as little as 1–2 days per/week of regular, weekly RPA associated with significant reductions in mortality.”

That means that even if you didn't exercise BEFORE your diagnosis, an exercise program would still help. Exercising as little as one or two days a week can significantly lower your chances of dying.

Patients who incorporated exercise into their treatment saw a reduction in treatment-related fatigue. It reduced feelings of anxiety and depression. Lung cancer patients needed less recovery time in the hospital. Balance and mobility improved, allowing patients to live more independently. The data was so compelling that researchers recommended exercise be included in the standard treatment of all cancer patients.

There are dozens of high-quality studies over the last 20 years that show the same results. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can prevent up to 30% of all cancers. But even after you’ve been diagnosed, exercise can dramatically improve the outcome.

Start by asking your doctor or healthcare provider what they recommend for your specific situation. You may be able to follow a simple program on your own, or you might need the help of a specialist like a cancer rehabilitation clinician or a physical therapist. It will all depend on the type of cancer you have, the treatment program you’re going through, the side effects you’re experiencing and what other health issues you may also be dealing with.

There are four different physical activities to consider.

Balance exercises are good to start with if you haven’t exercised before. They can help you regain mobility and prevent falls. Start when you’re brushing your teeth. Set a timer and stand on one leg for a minute, then on the opposite leg for another minute. When the two minutes are up, you’ve finished brushing your teeth and gotten a little steadier. You can do the same thing when you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, the post office, the bank or while washing dishes.

Aerobic exercises, also known as cardio, can strengthen your heart and lungs. Most people are familiar with steady-state cardio, where you run at a constant speed for a set period of time.

However, a much more efficient and beneficial form of cardio is called Interval training, also known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT). That’s where you run or move for short bursts at a very fast pace, mixed in with very slow periods where you recover. It allows you to get a more effective workout in less than half the time.

Somebody who hasn’t exercised before will begin with as little as two 10-minute HIIT sessions weekly. Slowly add more time and keep increasing the intensity.

Strength training is critical to help you with your daily activities. You need muscles to pick up a bag of groceries or lift yourself when you fall. On average, women and men lose 10% of their muscle strength each decade. Without some sort of muscle-building program, you can quickly lose the ability to function independently.

You don’t need a room full of equipment. Strength training using nothing more than your body weight is a great start. You can make things more challenging by adding simple elastic bands.

Stretching is important to improve your range of motion while increasing blood flow and oxygen to the muscles. It’s also good to help break down scar tissue and relax tight muscles after surgery. Move stretching to the end of any workout for maximum benefits.

Reference Links:

Habitual recreational physical activity is associated with significantly improved survival in cancer patients: evidence from the Roswell Park Data Bank and BioRepository

Rikki A. Cannioto, Shruti Dighe, Martin C. Mahoney, Kirsten B. Moysich, Arindam Sen, Karen Hulme, Susan E. McCann & Christine B. Ambrosone
Cancer Causes & Control, Published: 28 November 2018

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Effect of Exercise on Mortality and Recurrence in Patients With Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Shinichiro Morishita, PhD, Yohei Hamaue, PhD, Takuya Fukushima, PhD, Takashi Tanaka, BSc, Jack B. Fu, MD, and Jiro Nakano, PhD
Integrative Cancer Therapies, Published online 2020 Jun 1. doi: 10.1177/1534735420917462

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Physical Activity Before, During, and After Chemotherapy for High-Risk Breast Cancer: Relationships With Survival

Rikki A Cannioto, Alan Hutson, Shruti Dighe, William McCann, Susan E McCann, Gary R Zirpoli, William Barlow, Kara M Kelly, Carol A DeNysschen, Dawn L Hershman, Joseph M Unger, Halle C F Moore, James A Stewart, Claudine Isaacs, Timothy J Hobday, Muhammad Salim, Gabriel N Hortobagyi, Julie R Gralow, Kathy S Albain, G Thomas Budd, Christine B Ambrosone
Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2021 Jan 4;113(1):54-63. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djaa046

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Physical Activity and Cancer from the National Cancer Institute

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