Recently, the American College of Sports Medicine convened a panel of 13 researchers with expertise in cancer, fitness, obesity and exercise training to study the effects of exercise and physical activity for cancer patients.The panel’s conclusion? Exercise can have impressive physical benefits for people who are undergoing cancer treatments. It can reduce nausea and pain, preserve bone density, increase appetite and improve circulation.
Exercise can also increase cancer patients’ self-esteem, lower the risk of anxiety and depression and improve overall quality of life. Other peer-reviewed research has shown that exercise can offer substantial health benefits to cancer patients.
The type, intensity and frequency of exercise must be appropriate for each individual patient. Several factors will influence an exercise plan, such as the type and stage of cancer, the treatment regimen, current restrictions and limitations and other health concerns. Developing an exercise strategy should include input from the patient’s oncologist and primary care physician, along with a personal trainer and physical therapist.
The timing of exercise is important. Patients going through chemotherapy for the first time should wait to exercise until the first treatment cycle has been competed, so they have an idea of how they may respond to the demands of exercise. They should avoid exercise on chemotherapy or biological treatment days, and avoid public gyms when their immune systems are compromised due to low white blood cell counts.
In addition, patients who are undergoing radiation therapy should generally decrease or avoid exercise near end of treatment and for several weeks following it, and should avoid chlorinated swimming pools, which can irritate the skin.
Generally, a well-rounded exercise program should include cardiovascular activity, resistance training, flexibility exercises and training for balance and core strength. Cancer patients undergoing treatment have an increased risk of osteoporosis and peripheral neuropathy, so exercises that strengthen bone and promote circulation can be especially helpful.
For someone just beginning to exercise during cancer treatment, the ACSM recommends moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise, such as walking or stationary cycling, three to five days a week for 30 minutes. A patient who is in recovery may be able to increase the duration or intensity of exercise with the medical team’s approval and guidance.
Resistance training can help patients build muscle strength. Working with their medical team, patients can develop a routine of eight to 10 exercises once or twice per week to strengthen the large muscle groups such as the chest, back and legs, followed by smaller muscles.
Yoga, Pilates and balance-oriented exercises can be ideal for flexibility, stretching and core strength. Several hospital-affiliated fitness centers offer yoga especially for cancer patients. Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs combine yoga and meditation to promote physical, emotional and spiritual health and can be especially beneficial for patients undergoing cancer treatments.
Exercise offers tremendous benefits to caner patients, but be smart. Swelling, dizziness, pain or blurred vision are warning signs. If they occur, stop exercising and call the oncologist immediately. Should patients have any questions or concerns about exercise, take advantage of the medical team’s expertise.
“Health Watch” is brought to you by the physicians and staff at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas. For more information or for physician referral, call 1-800-SCRIPPS or visit www.scripps.org.