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Exercise During Cancer Treatment

Legs of a young man runningIt is common knowledge that staying physically active is beneficial to one’s overall health.  We have learned that physical activity reduces rates of depression, improves sleep, improves bone density and reduces the risk of developing some cancers including colorectal and breast cancers.  Additionally if you are a cancer survivor, exercise may reduce your risk of cancer recurrences and improve your cardiovascular health. Staying active improves the quality of life throughout the continuum of a cancer experience.

Should I exercise during cancer treatment?

Exercising during cancer treatment may be beneficial for reducing fatigue, improving physical function and enhancing your overall well-being.  Some modifications to a typical exercise routine may be necessary to avoid injury however.  For some people fatigue and dizziness or fear of falling may limit activity.  The message is that small amounts of activity in short bursts of ten to fifteen minutes are helpful in maintaining good circulation, helping with sleep and improving mood.

Examples where an exercise program may need to be modified include:

  • Patients (e.g. those with head and neck or gastrointestinal cancers) who lose a significant amount of muscle mass from their cancer treatment and need assistance to get up out of a chair. This group of people would benefit from exercises that help build muscle such as Qi Gong, relaxation forms of yoga or T’ai Chi.
  • Patients (e.g. those with breast or prostate cancer) who gain a significant amount of fat as a result of systemic treatments they often receive. In this group, exercises that help them reduce excess body fat if relevant (especially if located in the belly region) would be helpful.
  • If a low-intensity exercise program is best suited for your needs, some options of activity include walking, stretching or using resistance bands as well as some breathing related martial arts including Qi Gong, T’ai chi and yoga. Also those who may be on bed rest would benefit greatly from physical therapy, which focuses on maintaining strength and range of motion while fighting the effects of depression and fatigue.

Tips to avoid exercise-related injuries for cancer survivors:

  • Survivors with severe anemia should delay exercise, other than activities of daily living, until the situation is improved.  This is because anemia may exacerbate fatigue, dizziness and weakness.
  • Avoid public gyms and public pools if dealing with a compromised immune system until white blood cell counts return to safe levels. It is usually advised for survivors with a bone marrow transplant to avoid similar exposures for one year after transplantation.  Always wipe down any surface that has been exposed to sweat.
  • If undergoing radiation, survivors should avoid chlorine exposure to irradiated skin (e.g. from swimming pools).
  • Survivors with indwelling catheters or feeding tubes should be cautious or avoid bodies of water (pool, lake, ocean water) where microbial exposures may result in infections.
  • If dealing with multiple or uncontrolled comorbidities, survivors should consider modifications to their exercise program in consultation with their physicians.

For recommendations by the American Cancer Society go to:

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