From a historical perspective, fitness during cancer treatment wasn’t necessarily strongly advised for most patients. Many people with a chronic illness were advised to rest and decrease their physical activity in order to preserve their strength. In some ways, this old advice makes sense. After all, the task at hand was battling cancer — and depending on the treatment type, that could be an outright exhausting effort all by itself. But today, we know better, and patients are proving that exercise during treatment can have an incredible impact on their outcome.
Research over the last several years has shown that a focus on fitness during treatment can not only help patients maintain strength, muscle mass and mental health, it can also aid the body in healing and recovery during and after the treatment process. Recent studies suggest that there’s even better news: Cancer patients who are currently undergoing treatment don’t have to engage in strenuous exercise activities to reap some significant health benefits. In other words, even low-to-moderate activity can have extremely positive effects on the body during a patient’s cancer treatment journey.
A recent study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports showed that the positive effects of intense exercise training and less strenuous activity were roughly the same. There were 577 subjects studied who ranged in ages between 30 and 84 and had been recently diagnosed with breast, prostate or colorectal cancer. The subjects were assigned either resistance training in a fitness club or at-home endurance training, with all programs lasting six months. Though there weren’t clinically significant outcomes related to the types of exercise that each subject performed, what did emerge for all of them was a reporting of less fatigue and better overall fitness.
So, what types of exercise are best for patients undergoing cancer treatment? After you’ve cleared exercising with your doctor, an essential initial step is to take it slow and steady. Depending on where you are in your treatment journey and your fitness level before a cancer diagnosis, too much too soon can have adverse effects. Just remember, even a brief walk around the block or through your neighborhood every day can do wonders for your body and your mood. Strength-training exercises like lifting weights or your own body as resistance can help maintain and increase muscle mass while also protecting you from stiffness due to inactivity. Flexibility exercises can be crucial for cancer patients. Yoga, for example, can help maintain balance while stretching and strengthening large muscle groups such as the abdomen, thighs, chest and back.
Though the exercise possibilities are endless, make sure whatever you choose is enjoyable. One of the best ways to maintain a fitness program, whether or not you have cancer, is to make it enjoyable so you’ll keep doing it.
It’s important to note here that not all cancer journeys or treatment plans follow the same course. So, if you or someone you care about is currently undergoing treatment and wondering how exercise might benefit you, talk to your doctor first. He or she will be the best expert to help steer you in the right fitness direction so that any exercise you perform has a positive effect and enables you to avoid injury risk.
A cancer diagnosis is no longer one that should make patients automatically assume they should be inactive during treatment. After conversations with your physician, choose a fitness program that you enjoy and that makes you feel strong. Fighting cancer can necessitate various approaches, and there is plenty you can do to prepare and protect your body throughout the journey. Remember to keep exercise slow and steady — especially at the beginning, stay strong through resistance training, focus on flexibility and have fun.
[Read: Exercises for Osteoarthritis.]
I’ve seen many patients come out of a cancer diagnosis and treatment program stronger, fitter and healthier than they had ever been in their lives. If they can do it, so can you. Let’s get to work!
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