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Dumbbells and Chemo: Can We Beat Cancer with Exercise?

Physical activity provides benefits before, during, and after cancer

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Dumbbells and Chemo: Can We Beat Cancer with Exercise?

We’ve long known that regular physical activity lowers your risks of numerous types of cancer—in some cases, by up to 20 percent. But what about during and after your cancer treatment? The world’s leading cancer researchers say that exercise is a “super weapon” when you’re undergoing treatment. Here’s why.

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Your exercise prescription before cancer treatment

A growing number of oncologists are now prescribing physical activity as soon as there’s a cancer diagnosis. That’s because regular exercise—both strength training and cardio—can help to proactively counter the many side effects of cancer treatment.

For example, chemotherapy and radiation often cause weaker, more brittle bones. Weight-bearing movements, such as lifting weights or going for a run, are some of the best ways to enhance bone health.

Exercise for side effects

Other common cancer treatment side effects that exercise helps with include

  • loss of muscle mass
  • loss of muscle strength and endurance
  • weight management
  • low energy

Exercise for prevention

Regular physical activity also helps improve conditions that are linked with the actual development and progression of the disease. Examples include

  • strengthening your immune system
  • minimizing chronic inflammation
  • reducing your exposure to some carcinogens by improving your body’s natural detox and digestive processes
  • lowering growth factors, which are substances that regulate cell division and may be linked to cancer spreading

Think outside the gym

Being sedentary increases your cancer risks and your risks of experiencing cancer treatment side effects. But researchers aren’t just referring to a lack of exercise. Sedentary behaviour includes watching TV all afternoon and evening, or sitting at an office desk for your full work day.

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Exercise during your cancer treatment

“Exercise helped me with chemotherapy,” says cancer survivor Ginny Dent Brant. “I made it a goal to walk 1 to 2 miles (1.5 to 3 km) before and after each infusion.”

Brant’s oncologist recommended exercise as a way to stimulate her immune system’s lymphatic system. Your lymphatic system helps your body fight cancer and flush out toxins and harmful substances, and Brant believes her daily walks protected her from many of the side effects of chemotherapy.

But physical activity doesn’t just help reduce treatment side effects. It can actually be a powerful way to fight the disease itself.

To deliver the cancer treatment drugs to the tumour or cancerous cells, you need healthy blood flow. Doctors now believe that exercise may be the best way to boost blood flow and destroy cancer cells more effectively. The American Society of Clinical Oncology even notes that cancer patients who exercise while getting treatment tend not to need to be in the hospital for as long.

And it’s not just about your physical symptoms. Getting a cancer diagnosis can have a severe impact on your mental health, with many cancer patients experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Exercise is one of the best ways to improve mental health, boost your mood, and enhance your general quality of life.

Sweat out the surgery

“A proper exercise program will help to reduce the side effects of cancer surgeries and treatments,” says certified personal trainer Carol Michaels, author of Exercises for Cancer Survivors (FriesenPress, 2013). “These can include limited range of motion, numbness, stiffness, lymphedema, osteoporosis, and joint pain.”

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Exercise for survivors—after cancer

Cancer can have long-lasting effects on everything from your sleep to your energy levels. Exercise may help you address these changes and restore your quality of life faster.

Physical activity has also been linked to lower rates of the cancer recurring or spreading. For example, men with prostate cancer have a 33 percent lower risk of death from the cancer if they exercise, and women with breast cancer reduce their risk of a cancer-related death by 40 percent.

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Your anticancer workout

Talk to your doctor before working out to ensure your exercise regimen is compatible with your cancer diagnosis and your treatment. Then, ease into it—if you’ve never exercised before, try starting with 10-minute intervals of physical activity—and work your way up.

  • Aim for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week.
  • Include at least two workouts a week that focus on strength and resistance.
  • Incorporate standing and walking into your daily routine.

“Physical activity is safe for all cancer patients,” says certified personal trainer John Gardner. “Exercise also helps cancer patients take matters into their own hands and opt for a more hands-on approach to treatment instead of being passive. This will improve a person’s well-being and attitude.”

Anticancer immunity supplements

A healthy, well-balanced diet that focuses on whole, plant-based foods is key for cancer recovery. Talk to your doctor about whether the following supplements can help you restore your well-being and energy.

Vitamin D Taking enough vitamin D may reduce your cancer risks. It also shows promise, in experimental research, of slowing down the growth and spread of cancer.

Medicinal mushrooms These aren’t your ordinary button or cremini mushrooms. Medicinal mushrooms such as shiitake, reishi, and turkey tail contain anti-inflammatory compounds that may reduce cancer risks, support your immune system, increase your tolerance to the side effects of chemotherapy, and may even slow the growth of tumours.

Green tea The antioxidants in green tea may slow the growth of tumour cells, protect against the damage caused by UVB radiation, and even prevent cancer in the first place.

This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue of alive with the title "Dumbbells and chemo."

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