Exercise benefits for cancer survivors

By: Sanford Health News .

Women exercise on elliptical machines
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By Linda Thorseth, Sanford Health physical therapist

After you’ve made it through the challenges of cancer treatment, it’s often a natural next step to focus on establishing healthy lifestyle habits. Studies show that one of the best ways to take care of yourself during and after cancer treatment is by staying physically active. Regular exercise can make a difference in your physical and mental well-being and support your future recovery. 

Why movement matters

Regular exercise has been found to have a range of physical and mental benefits for cancer survivors. Consistent activity improves blood flow, balance, sleep and self-esteem. It can also help reduce anxiety, nausea and the risk for blood clots, while minimizing muscle atrophy and diminishing fatigue. It can help with controlling weight loss and recovering strength, while also helping you maintain your overall functional independence.

There is overwhelming evidence for exercise reducing cancer-related fatigue (CRF). A recent study published in JAMA Oncology identified it as the most impactful intervention to reducing CRF compared with pharmaceutical or psychological interventions alone.

Being physically active is also linked to better cancer specific outcomes (especially for breast, colorectal and prostate cancers). In general, findings demonstrate an overall positive benefit for exercise intervention among a variety of cancer types, using a variety of movements. This variation can make it difficult to identify parameters for exercise use, but it also allows for a lot of opportunity to tailor the activity to your specific needs.

Exercising with a plan

When it comes to adding fitness to your routine as a cancer survivor, there is no bad time to start. Any level of physical activity is better than none. If you haven’t been exercising, start with an easily accessible activity such as walking. If you have been exercising, continue your program, but listen to your body and modify it as needed.

There is a lot of variability as to what types of exercise and what levels of activity are most effective. Some variables to consider when planning to add exercise to your routine are where, what to do and how often to do it. If you have questions such as these or haven’t been an exerciser, you may benefit from a physical therapy consult for more information and to have a program designed for you.

The intensity of your exercise can vary from light to moderate to vigorous. It’s most important to listen to your body’s needs and to approach your routine with safety and consistency in mind. Here are some parameters for exercise intensity levels:

  • Light exercise involves no noticeable change in your breathing pattern. Activities you can do for light exercise include easy walking, light house work (such as cooking, making the bed, washing dishes), knitting, fishing or other sitting recreational activities.
  • Moderate exercise is when you’re doing an activity that raises your heart rate enough that you can still talk during it, but not sing. These activities could include walking, dancing, leisurely bicycling, yoga, canoeing, volleyball, golfing and gardening.
  • You’re doing vigorous exercise when you can only say a few words before needing to catch your breath. Hiking, shoveling, digging, aerobic dance, running, lap swimming are all forms of vigorous exercise.

Safety considerations

It’s important to plan any new exercise routine with the help of your oncologist, care team and physical therapist. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology for Cancer-Related Fatigue advise starting slowly and progressing incrementally.

Depending on your fitness and comfort level, you may want to start with light to moderate activity and progress to more intense training. Stretch your major muscle groups after you’ve completed your strengthening or conditioning exercise. Avoid any prolonged sedentary behavior.

Because of your history with cancer, there are some specific health concerns that you’ll need to monitor when exercising and consider adjusting your routine if you’re experiencing any of the following:

  • Anemia – may benefit from physical therapy or supervision to start a fitness routine if you are short of breath with basic activity
  • Thrombocytopenia – may place you at a higher risk for hemorrhage, so avoid vigorous exercise
  • Neutropenia – places you at a higher risk for infection, so you’ll need to use good hand hygiene and use antibacterial wipes before and after using equipment in a gym facility
  • Peripheral neuropathy – places you at a greater fall risk due to weakness or numbness in hands and feet
  • Cardiopulmonary issues – exercise providers need to know about any chemotherapy agents that might place you at a higher risk for any cardiac dysfunction
  • Bone fragility – take these issues into consideration during any weight bearing exercise and for fall prevention concerns
  • Advanced cancers – if your cancer is advanced, you may need close monitoring and referral for rehab services before community based programs

No matter what type of exercise it is, a little movement can go a long way toward making a difference in how you feel – not only as a patient, but also as a survivor looking forward into a future that’s full of healthier tomorrows.


Posted In Cancer, Health