Cancer and the various cancer treatments cause many physical and mental challenges for those affected with the disease. Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy often cause side-effects that can be reduced by exercise. Physical activity has been shown to positively affect the quality of life for survivors who are either in treatment or have completed treatment through the improvement of cardiovascular strength, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, balance and coordination. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “research shows that getting regular physical activity not only helps give cancer survivors a better quality of life, but also improves their physical fitness.” The benefits of regular exercise include:
Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy often develop “chemo brain”, mental cloudiness that results in short attention spans and difficulty remembering common words, names and dates. Patients sometimes develop anxiety and depression due to concerns about treatments and the unknown future recovery. Radiation and chemotherapy also cause fatigue which can exacerbate feeling of despair and anxiousness. Endorphins, the body’s natural “feel good” chemicals, are released by the brain during exercise, boosting mood naturally. Aerobic exercise, activity that increases the heart rate, increases blood flow to the brain, improving cognitive thinking. Moderate exercise also increases levels of dopamine and seratonin, neurotransmitters that regulate mood.
Chemotherapy can weaken the bones increasing the risk for osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercises, such as lifting dumbbells or marching in place, will, at the very least maintain bone density. A diet rich in calcium and vitamin D, in conjunction with exercises that stress the skeletal system could even increase bone density and decrease risk of bone disease. Strength training exercises also improve body strength, providing the ability to complete normal daily tasks such as lifting a laundry basket or grocery bags and carrying a child.
Radiation, chemotherapy and surgery are stressful to the heart. Aerobic exercise, such as walking, riding a stationary bike, and dancing, strengthen the heart muscle and also improve the heart-lung system which circulates needed nutrients and oxygen to all of the cells of the body. Regular exercise improves all the systems of the body, which improves overall energy levels for day to day tasks.
Cancer survivors should always get physical activity recommendations from their physicians before beginning any type of exercise program. For those cleared for exercise, implementing small changes into the daily routine, and eventually increasing activity to 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week will improve health and wellbeing. Walking is one of the easiest ways to increase physical activity. Participating in a group exercise class, or working with a personal trainer will provide expertise to help provide correct form and activity levels for survivors. Specific exercise programs for cancer survivors, such as the LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program and physically active cancer support groups provide social health benefits in addition to physical health gains.