Exercise is good for cancer patients and survivors. We have heard this time and again. Cancer researchers, doctors and nurses tell us that we need to be active. We are told that it will make us feel better and help reduce the risk of our cancer coming back.
But there are so many exercises out there. Everywhere you look, someone is telling you about the latest and greatest fitness craze. It seems that every fitness trainer and gym claim their program is the best. They pump it up to get you to sign up. The enthusiasm is contagious. And that is okay. Whatever gets you moving, right!
But how do you sort through all the hype? Those who have had cancer and gone through treatments have special issues. We aren’t your normal gym goers. We have lingering problems that make exercising difficult, frustrating and sometimes dangerous.
So, what are the best exercises for cancer survivors? Let’s have a look at what the science tells us.
10 Benefits of Exercise for Cancer Survivors
Just in case you aren’t convinced you need to exercise, let’s first look at 10 reasons why you should be exercising.
1. Reduce risk of cancer recurrence
I put this reason as number one, because it is number one in my book. Survivors who exercise live longer and have lower risk of the cancer returning than those that don’t. This isn’t even debated anymore. There are so many studies to support this. The statistics tell us to exercise.
2. Lessens side effects of treatments
This is another reason I exercise. My medications give me bone pains and running helps minimize those pains. And I am not alone. Many of my fellow survivors who exercise report handling their treatments better.
Studies show that cancer patients on a fitness program have fewer trips to their oncologist for cancer treatment related issues.
3. Boosts energy
Cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is a common issue. Approximately 45% of cancer survivors report moderate to severe fatigue that can last from months to years after treatments stop.
And CRF isn’t that we just feel tired. This is a profound and persistent tiredness that affects our quality of life. It is a medical issue with no pharmaceutical cure. No drugs have been known to help with this.
“Persistent CRF affects quality of life, as patients become too tired to fully participate in the roles and activities that make life meaningful.”
– National Comprehensive Cancer Network –
But exercise helps. Just 30 minutes of exercise five days per week can boost energy levels and reduce CRF.
4. Improves sleep
Many of those who have undergone cancer treatments are lousy sleepers. I know I was. The stress of the diagnosis and the side effects of medications can lead to insomnia. This adds to the cancer-related fatigue we just talked about.
But exercise can help. Studies show that people who exercise may get an extra 75 minutes of sleep per night. And it is a better quality sleep too.
5. Elevates mood
I feel better after a run or a workout, don’t you? This is because endorphins, our ‘happy’ hormones, are released during exercise. Most people get a boost in their mood after about 20 minutes of aerobic exercise.
6. Reduces anxiety
Exercise has also been shown to help lessen anxiety. And a cancer diagnosis definitely causes anxiety.
When I found a lump in my second breast, I was so upset. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was restless and couldn’t think straight. So, I laced up my running shoes and just ran. I felt so much better after that run. My head was clear. I was able to tackle cancer, yet again, after that.
Studies support this and explore the usefulness of exercise in treating those with anxiety disorder too.
7. Strengthens a weakened body
Cancer treatments do a number on our bodies. I know that I felt weak and frail at the end of my treatments. I was a strong woman before cancer, working a busy and stressful job and taking care of my family. After going through two surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, I could barely take care of myself. Some days, I needed help to do even that.
But exercise can give you your strength back. Slowly, you regain muscle. Nerves work better after a workout. And bone gets stronger.
8. Improves circulation
As we move, our heart and muscles work hard and push blood around our body. Flow of our lymph fluid is also improved.
Many chemotherapy medications can affect the heart and create circulation problems. But the good news is that exercise can reverse this. Being active improves heart muscle, decreases blood pressure and improves cholesterol levels.
Exercise can also help those suffering from lymphedema, which is a problem with fluids pooling in localized places in the body, usually arms and legs. It can cause upsetting, disfiguring and painful swellings that some cancer survivors experience. Lymphedema is usually life long and difficult to treat.
9. Helps heal ‘chemo brain’
Chemo brain is a recognized side effect of cancer and treatments. The official term for it is cancer related cognitive impairment. It affects up to 75% of cancer patients.
The signs of chemo brain are confusion, trouble concentrating, memory loss, and slower thought processes. It is very frustrating for cancer survivors and can last for years after treatments are completed.
The good news is that exercise can help. Studies show that exercise can improve the brain side effects of cancer treatments.
10. Improves Quality of life
Cancer survivors who exercise, in general, report having a better quality of life than those who don’t engage in regular fitness activities. It is as simple as that!
Have I convinced you to get out there for a workout yet? I hope so.
Now let’s look at what exercises are the best for cancer survivors.
Exercise Recommendations for Cancer Survivors
I reviewed numerous cancer guidelines on exercise for cancer patients and survivors. I have also talked to kinesiologists and trainers. There is a consensus that some exercises are better than others for helping cancer survivors get back to a healthier life.
Three Types of Exercises Good for Cancer Survivors
There is a plethora of exercise programs out there. It can be overwhelming having to pick one. But let me simplify it for you.
Basically, there are three types of exercises that experts recommend for cancer survivors.
1. Aerobic Exercise
Aerobic exercise, also known as ‘cardio’, involves brisk movement that increases your heart rate and breathing. Activities like walking, running, hiking, cycling, and swimming are all classified as aerobic exercise. Gym programs incorporate cardio into most programs, including HIIT routines and even weightlifting programs.
These are the workouts that get your blood and lymph moving. Your cells become bathed in oxygen. And your body releases healthy hormones and happy brain chemicals.
The healthy effects of aerobic exercise for healing from cancer is the most studied type of exercise. There are so many research papers on this saying that aerobic exercise is the best type of exercise for cancer survivors.
So, if you only do one type of exercise, make sure it gets your blood moving, increases your heart rate and gets you breathing heavier.
2. Resistance Exercise
Resistance exercises are those that use an external force on the muscle to increase strength, tone and endurance. That is fancy talk for weightlifting, resistance bands or body weight exercises.
Research supports incorporating resistance training into cancer recovery and fitness programs. Many cancer treatments can weaken muscle, nerves and bone. Resistance training can help you recover your strength. It can also ward off long term side effects, such as osteoporosis and neuropathies. Some bodyweight exercises are incorporated into programs designed to help with lymphedema too.
Lifting weights likely isn’t the best choice for those healing from treatments and getting back into fitness. Even resistance band workouts may be too much for some. Using your own bodyweight is a better choice until you are stronger.
After a while, adding weights or resistance bands into your routine is a fantastic way to advance your workouts. But in the beginning, your own body weight is enough to provide the resistance you need to get stronger.
3. Yoga, Tai Chi or Qigong
Yoga, Tai Chi or Qigong are all exercises that improve balance, flexibility, strength, and mindfulness. These are gentler types of exercise and are good for most cancer patients, including those currently undergoing treatments. While they are not aerobic workouts, they do have the advantage of increasing flexibility, improving balance and helping the mind cope with stress.
Yoga has been well studied and shown to help improve the wellbeing of cancer patients and survivors. Yoga can help with joint pain, muscle cramps and is a great complement to aerobic activities, such as running.
Tai Chi and Qigong are less popular, but can be equally beneficial. These are types of martial arts that focus on health, rather than combat. Qigong involves movement, breathing and meditation to improve energy flows to heal the body, mind and emotions. Tai Chi involves more complex, controlled movements and mindfulness, but also teaches some self-defense techniques. Both have shown promising benefits for healing after cancer.
The Best Exercise Program for Cancer Survivors
While cardio exercise should be the main focus for cancer survivors, incorporating all three types of exercise will produce the ideal fitness program. This is because, as we have seen, each type of exercise can provide different benefits and healing.
Consider programs that have you doing cardio three times per week, strength workouts twice weekly and yoga, tai chi or qigong at least once per week. This will have you easily doing the recommended weekly 150 minutes of exercise.
Easy and Gentle is Better
Overall the experts agree, gentler is better. Easing into exercise after a life-altering event, such as cancer, is best.
You don’t need “killer” workouts. You should not be starting with any “shredding”. And you certainly don’t need to feel like you have to “crush” anything. These are all just adjectives that fitness gurus use to get you to buy their products. But you don’t have to strain yourself to get the health benefits from exercise.
Get the “no pain, no gain” thoughts out of your head. That is old school. Research shows that slow and gentle is better for fat burning and general health.
In fact, we know that going too hard can actually put a strain on your immune system. Marathoners are often sick with colds and flus after a race.
And exercise is much more enjoyable without the added pressures of giving it everything you have. Relax and enjoy it. You are more likely to stick with the program this way. Getting out there to just move is so much more important than amping it to the max!
Tips to Get Started with Post-Cancer Exercise
Check with Your Doctor
The first thing you want to do is to chat with your cancer care team about your plans for exercising. I am sure they will support you in your efforts. But you want to make sure the exercise is the right fit for you and your health. There are some complications from cancer that can make some exercises more difficult or even dangerous.
Plan and Set Goals
What do you enjoy doing? There is no point in continuing on with an exercise that you absolutely hate. You won’t stick with it. And you want to be active and workout multiple times a week for the rest of your life.
There are tons of exercises you can do. So, pick something you might like and make a plan for it.
Think about what you want to get from your workouts. And break it down into achievable bite sized chunks.
Schedule Time to Exercise
Then schedule time for your workouts. Make it a priority. Write it in your calendar and think of it like a job. It is your job to work your body and stay healthy. Commit to it.
Do Your Warm-ups and Cool-downs
Don’t skimp on your warm-ups and cool-downs. This is an important part of working out and can help prevent you from getting injured.
Warm-up routines will prepare your muscles for the work ahead. The best warm-ups involve some light cardio, such as a walk or slow jog, to get your heart pumping and blood moving. Then do some dynamic stretches. These are stretches that involve movement, such as butt kicks, high knees and walking lunges.
Cool-downs are similar, but can include some static stretches, such as toe touches, butterfly stretch, or a forward bend. Walking is a great way to end a workout. So are some gentle yoga poses, such as the child (Balansana) or leg-up-the-wall (Viparita Karani) pose.
Starting back into exercise and fitness should be done slowly. As we discussed above, going out too hard and too fast is a sure way to get yourself injured. Being sore from a workout is no fun either.
It doesn’t need to be like this. Getting back into fitness slowly is better for your body. Start slowly and let your body heal and adjust to the new activities you are asking it to do.
Listen to Your Body
Be sure to listen to your body. If you are not feeling up to the exercise you have scheduled, then do a lighter exercise or reschedule for another day. Swap out your rest days.
Speaking of rest days, you shouldn’t be working the same muscle every day. Schedule some rest days into your week.
If you want to workout every weekday, then mix it up. Perhaps do 30 minutes of cardio Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Then alternate with 30 minutes of resistance training on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
If you aren’t up to 30-minute workouts yet, that is okay. Break up the workout into several sessions throughout the day or week. You could do 10-minute sessions instead. As long as you are getting the minimum recommended 150 minutes per week in, its all good.
Building fitness and regaining health takes time. It is a long process. I am talking years, not weeks or months.
Cancer and its treatments have likely set you back. Your muscles are weaker. You have health issues in some form or another, no doubt. You will need to be patient.
But I promise you that your body will respond to the effort you put in. Over time, it is possible to get where you want to be. You just need to be patient and stick with it for the long haul.
As you progress through your program, you can adjust the level of exercises. Again, do this slowly. Give your body time to respond and heal.
Experts recommend increasing by only 10% each week.
Check In with Yourself
Be sure to check in with yourself every now and then. Keeping a workout journal helps. You want to assess where you are at and what your continued goals will be. It is also motivating to look back and see how far you have progressed.
Check In with Your Doctor
Take your progress reports into your doctor appointment with you. Talk to your oncology team about your progression and experiences. Let them help you tweak realistic goals for moving forward. If you are struggling to regain your fitness, they can help point you to someone knowledgeable who can help you.
You don’t have to do this alone. In fact, having a support group or buddy system increases your chance for success. This can be a friend who is doing the exercises or fitness program with you. It can be a club or fitness group that you join. Or it can simply be family or friends that cheer you on and keep you accountable to your goals.
Ask for Help
If you are struggling with maintaining a fitness routine, there are many experts who can help. Physiotherapists, kinesiologists, trainers and coaches can all help you with any lingering issues with movement, strength or fitness. Be sure to talk to someone who knows, specifically, about the struggles we cancer survivors experience.
Precautions for Exercising After Cancer
I want to stress the importance of talking about exercise with your oncology team.
I have given you a broad overview of science-backed exercises that are good for cancer patients and survivors to do. But I don’t know your medical history. I cannot give you medical advice. The information in this article is general information only.
Your fitness journey back to health requires knowing where your health currently is. Your doctor and nurses know this information. So talk to them about your plans to exercise.
There are some health issues that can make some exercises risky. If you are experiencing any of these conditions on this partial list, then be careful when exercising. It might be best to hire a personal trainer or health coach to help guide you on a personalized journey.
If you have Bone Metastasis
If you have weakened bones or if your cancer has spread to the bones, be careful with bends and twists. Look for low impact exercises, such as walking and gentle yoga poses.
If you have Neuropathy
If you have nerve issues, your balance may be off and you may fall more easily. Use support when doing the exercises. You can use walking poles, for example. You could also do some chair yoga.
If you have Heart Trouble
If you have heart issues, keep any cardio exercise low and slow. Short walks are likely best. Increase your walking slowly under your doctor’s guidance.
If you have had Radiation Treatments
Radiation can leave your skin inflamed and ulcerated. Swimming likely isn’t a good choice, until your skin heals. The chlorine in swimming pools will be irritating. And lake waters can be full of bacteria and parasites, leaving you susceptible to infections.
If you have Thrombocytopenia
Many cancer patients have low platelets that can leave them prone to blood clotting issues. So, take extra care to prevent injury when exercising. Talk to your oncology team about what exercise you can do safely. You may need to wait until your platelets are back to normal numbers.
If you have Anemia
If your red blood cells are low, your ability to do cardio exercise may be limited. Red blood cells carry oxygen, so if you don’t have enough you may struggle with breathing or be dizzy or light-headed. If you are anemic, talk to your doctor about which exercises are okay to do.
If you have Fever or Infection
It is never a good idea to exercise if you have a fever or infection. But it is even more important for those with cancer to pay attention to this. If you are not feeling well, see your doctor and skip the workout.
If you are still healing from Surgery
Experts tell us that we should try to workout early in the healing process. But working out after surgery can be both painful and dangerous. It is especially important to discuss this with your surgeon. They may even have some post-surgical exercises that will help you recover faster. Be sure to ask about this.
Take Home Message
Whew, that was a long article. Congratulations if you made it all the way to here. I hope you found it helpful. I enjoyed writing it.
Now, I want to summarize the important points in the article one more time.
- Be sure to talk about exercise with your oncology team.
- Start and progress slowly and gently.
- Combine all three types of exercises but focus on aerobic as it has the biggest benefit.
- Plan for a lifetime of routine exercise.
- Enjoy your workouts.
Learn more about Being Active in the Pink Ribbon Runner archives.