04 Nov How exercise can help you recover from cancer
Exercise may feel like the last thing someone wants to do during cancer recovery, but research shows it could make all the difference by helping to boost energy levels, minimise side effects and even enhance the recovery process.
THE BENEFITS OF EXERCISE
There’s plenty of ways exercise can help you as you recover from cancer, and fatigue management is one of them. While this may sound counterintuitive, exercise reduces cancer-related fatigue. People may experience fatigue at any time from diagnosis through to treatment, and some people experience it even months after treatment has finished. The experience of fatigue can vary from day-to-day and from week-to-week, and therefore activity levels may need to be adjusted around fluctuating fatigue. Exercise has been found to conclusively reduce cancer-related fatigue both during and after cancer treatment.
Fatigue isn’t the only side effect that can be improved through exercise. Exercise minimises the effects of other cancer treatment-related side effects. Research shows that exercise during and following cancer treatment can:
- Reduce the risk of long-term heart problems after radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy);
- Minimise loss of bone strength;
- Reduce the risk of developing lymphedema;
- Improve anaemia (a red-blood cell deficiency); and
- Enhance quality of life.
Exercise post-diagnosis may also influence risk of recurrence and death. Not only does the World Health Organisation say exercise reduces cancer mortality, new research also suggests exercise may lower the risk of recurrence among people with cancer.
WHAT TYPE OF EXERCISE AND HOW MUCH?
Everyone is different when it comes to exercise prescription and depending on the type of cancer and the current cancer treatment cycle, exercise should be tailored accordingly.
In general, the Exercise medicine in cancer management position statement says every person with cancer should aim to complete at least moderate intensity exercise, unless they have certain risk factors.
Risk factors can include (but aren’t limited to):
- Surgery for cancer in the past few weeks;
- Individual medical factors such as periods of very low immunity or increased bleeding risk such as a low blood platelet count; and/or
- Nausea related to higher intensity activity.
Even if someone has any of the above factors, exercise is still possible. However, it needs to be tailored to minimise any risks. This is where an Accredited Exercise Physiologist with experience in cancer will be best placed to work with someone living with cancer.
The role of an exercise physiologist
The ESSA position statement on exercise in cancer care concludes that there is no set prescription or amount of exercise that would be seen as evidence-based for all cancer patients. Most exercise programs will include a mix of aerobic and resistance type exercises, and each session should be adjusted based on how the person is feeling on certain days.
Aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is any activity that gets the heart beating faster and includes everything from walking to working out on the elliptical machine and dancing. If 20 continuous minutes or more can be reached, then it’s recommended to aim for exercise on most days of the week. If it is a struggle to get to 20 minutes, then it’s recommended to break exercise up into manageable chunks but to still aim for some exercise every day of the week.
Resistance exercise. Strength training aims to increase the size and load capacity of muscles, and includes everything from body weight exercises like squats, through to dumbbells, exercise bands and machine weight exercises.
You should do resistance exercise at least twice per week, with usually at least 48 hours of recovery before exercising the same muscle group again.
EXERCISE WORKS BEST IN CONJUNCTION WITH SOCIAL SUPPORT
We know exercise can make you feel happy, help minimise treatment-related side effects, and improve treatment outcomes, but it can be hard to get started. It’s important to stay motivated, and supportive people can make all the difference.
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE AN ACCREDITED EXERCISE PHYSIOLOGIST
Everyone’s treatment program and background is different, which means the exercise program needs to be unique as well. The very best way to know what type of exercise to do is to work with an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, as they’re experts in exercise prescription.
An Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) will provide support, will help provide understanding as to what kind of exercise is best, and will motivate and oversee any progress throughout the recovery journey. They act like a personal cheerleader with all the knowledge needed to help someone achieve all their fitness goals.
Expert Contributor: Michael Marthick, Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Managing Director, Care Connected