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Exercise During Cancer Treatment: Benefits and Considerations

October 12, 2023 Posted in: Cancer Care

You might still be working through your emotions if you started cancer treatment recently. You may have questions about treatment side effects and how to adapt to the changes ahead. On your mind, it may be whether you have to rest or stay active during treatment.

In general, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to health problems or other complications. And it's no different before, during, or after cancer treatment. Studies have revealed that exercise helps you deal with stress and recover more quickly. It can also improve your body's response to treatment. Over time, it can even reduce the risk of developing other cancers or conditions, like heart disease and diabetes.

But how much you exercise and when depends on how you feel and your fitness level. Here are some helpful things to know about exercising during cancer treatment:

Working out can help you handle treatment better, no matter the stage or type

Exercising during chemotherapy has tremendous benefits. It can give you more energy and help you respond better to treatment. Research shows it can help improve your heart health and survival rates for certain cancers. Moreover, staying active can help you cope with fatigue related to treatment, improve sleep, decrease pain, and reduce complications from surgery

In a new study, patients who exercised during or after chemotherapy reported improved cardiorespiratory fitness up to one year after completing the exercise program. Cardiorespiratory fitness refers to how well your heart and lungs work during physical activity. Participants also reported less fatigue and fewer adverse side effects. Another study suggests that physical activity may help people with breast cancer avoid "chemo brain" or "chemo fog." That includes symptoms such as confusion, forgetting things, and difficulty concentrating. These symptoms can last for many years after treatment ends.

The bottom line is that staying active before and after treatment is essential for a better quality of life. Remember, life doesn't stop with your diagnosis; it's the beginning of your healing journey.

Moving is better than sitting, but the length and intensity depend on many factors

Your age and the type and stage of cancer may affect your ability to exercise during treatment. The treatment itself and your fitness level are factors to consider, too. If you were active before, you might need to adjust the intensity or frequency of your workouts. If you're not used to exercising, start with low-intensity activities such as short walks, swimming, or light jogging. You can bump up the intensity or work out longer as you recover from treatment. The key is in knowing what's right and safe for you. Listen to your body and rest when your body needs it. Talk with your cancer care team and ask whether there are limits to what you can do. 

Keep it fun and mix up your workouts 

A new exercise program can feel challenging, especially if you didn't exercise before your diagnosis. Start slow and go at your own pace. Exercising for 20 minutes three times a week is an excellent place to start. Choose low-intensity workouts like walking, stretching, and balance exercises. Many patients feel that a daily walk improves their mental and physical well-being during treatment.

If this is your first time exercising, consider starting with daily living activities and gradually building up. Daily living activities, or DLAs, are things like folding laundry, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries. As you get stronger, you can add more variety to your routine. When you mix up your workouts, you're working your whole body and keeping it interesting. This will help you stick with it and can even help you find positivity in your routine.

Before you start a new exercise program, speak with your cancer care team at St. Luke's Health. That's especially important if you have heart or lung disease, weak bones, or balance issues. Also, check if any of the medicines you're taking will affect how active you can be. If you're working out with a trainer, make sure they know about your cancer diagnosis to determine the exercise that's right and safe for you.

Sources:

Physical Activity and the Person with Cancer

Exercise During Cancer Treatment | Cancer.Net

Exercise Improves Cardiorespiratory Fitness During and After Chemotherapy - American College of Cardiology (acc.org)

Optimal Timing of a Physical Exercise Intervention to Improve Cardiorespiratory Fitness: During or After Chemotherapy | JACC: CardioOncology

Impact of Exercise on Cancer Mortality, Recurrence, and Treatment-Related Adverse Effects | Epidemiologic Reviews | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

Impact of physical exercise in cancer survivors during and after antineoplastic treatments - PMC (nih.gov)

Physical Activity May Lessen the Effects of Chemo Brain - NCI (cancer.gov)

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