The fight against cancer can leave patients feeling drained both physically and emotionally, but getting active and staying active can play a critical role in improving quality of life.
“Light to moderate exercise has been repeatedly proven to increase both immune function and energy levels,” said Dr. Jedidiah Ballard, assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia. “Additionally, moderate exercise during an emotionally taxing disease process like cancer can play a significant role in preventing depression and increasing patients subjective quality of life scores.’
Studies show exercise benefits cancer patients by improving aerobic fitness, decreasing fatigue and increasing strength. When it comes to how long and how intense the exercise needs to be, the American Cancer Society suggests starting slow with activities such as going for a short walk or enjoying a bike ride outdoors. According to Ballard, as a general rule your exercise should not cause anything beyond mild soreness for up to 48 hours after.
“Health and fitness are long term games. Start slow,” Ballard said. “If you are going through or recovering from a major illness like cancer, your first couple workout should be very light. Do a little, see how your body feels in 48 hours, then slowly increase the duration and intensity.”
All cancer patients should talk with their doctor before starting an exercise program to see what workouts will be the safest to perform. As an example, patients whose cancer has spread to their bones should avoid lifting weights to prevent fractures. If your cancer or treatment plan are affecting your balance, it may be best to avoid going for a run around the local track. Keep your cancer care team informed of the kind of exercises you choose, because they need to monitor your blood counts and the other numbers that can impact the kind of exercises you should do.
When it comes to how much exercise is necessary to achieve positive results, the current standard for the general population is at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week. You can do that by exercising for a half hour a day for at least five days, or for longer periods over a few days. If your weekends are the only time you can fit in exercise, then try to put in at least two and a half hours of moderate aerobic activity on Saturday or Sunday.
“If you are currently doing no exercise, 10 minutes a day, six days a week is a huge improvement,” Ballard said. “Also, if your body is undergoing the stress of fighting cancer or going through chemotherapy or radiation, you may only be able to handle 15-20 minutes a day until you get to a remission point in your cancer.”