I was recently contacted by a very nice guy at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance who asked if he could post a guest article on the importance of exercise in the fight against cancer. As a firm believer in the healing powers of proper nutrition and exercise, of course I said yes. So, without further delay, here is his take on the importance of exercise - specifically as it pertains to those fighting cancer.
Exercise - Cancer Treatment’s Secret Weapon
by David Haas
In addition to conventional treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation, the fight against cancer has a new weapon: working out. And while it’s well known that exercise is healthful for everybody, it plays an especially vital role in cancer treatment, with benefits ranging from improved stamina to a better body image. Experts from the National Cancer Institute state that regular exercise at a level appropriate for a cancer patient’s condition can improve not only quality of life, but also ups the odds of surviving the disease.
Cancer and its treatments impose severe stresses on the body. Pain, fatigue, weight and appetite loss can make exercise the last thing on a cancer patient’s mind. But, oncologists and therapists say, for many people it should be one of the first things. And although ‘exercise” may conjure images of vigorous aerobic workouts, the new recommendations for exercise during caner treatment emphasize that it’s movement of all kinds that makes the difference, whether it’s running a mile or stretching gently while in bed. The key is movement – activity that keeps limbs flexible and blood and oxygen flowing to the brain and body.
The role of exercise in cancer prevention has been well documented, with statistics showing that regular workouts can actually reduce the risk of cancers including breast and colon cancer. But until recently its role in active cancer treatment and recovery has been less studied. Now, though, exercise that takes into account individual needs and concerns may be added to treatment plans for a variety of cancers. Strength training, aerobic exercise and stretching can all help cancer patients to feel better, move better and tolerate treatments more easily.
For individuals who have undergone surgery for breast cancer, weight training and stretching can stabilize and strengthen the shoulder and chest muscles. Aerobic exercise, which can be as simple as a daily walk or as intense as running, cycling or organized sports, oxygenates the blood, keeps blood vessels flexible and stimulates the immune system. Even those who are bedridden can benefit from gentle exercise such as raising and lowering the arms or lifting the feet. Stretching and flexibility workouts such as yoga or tai chi can keep joints working and muscles relaxed. This kind of exercise also incorporates meditation and mindfulness to help reduce stress and activate relaxation responses, with benefits for blood pressure and the immune system. Individuals recovering from surgeries may find stretching helpful to strengthen healing muscles and tissues.
Some types of cancers, such as mesothelioma, colon and other upper body cancers, cause wasting and weight loss. Strength-building exercise can build back muscle, which supports the body, stimulates appetite, and creates a more positive body image. An added bonus is improved balance and coordination.
Experts from NCI caution that while exercise should be a part of cancer treatment, exercise regimens should be planned with the help of the care team or a physical therapist familiar with the special issues affecting cancer patients. Some treatments can leave patients nauseated and dehydrated, so care must be taken to keep hydrated during exercise. Because some cancers are associated with muscle weakness, precautions to avoid falls may be especially important.Treatments for some cancers can also cause bone fragility, so vigorous exercise or high impact workouts may increase the risk for fractures.
Because exercise places extra demands on the body’s energy reserves, nutrition is also important. Cancer and its treatments can cause a loss of appetite or an inability to tolerate the healthy fats and carbohydrates needed to support the body during intense exercise, leading to fatigue and loss of stamina. Keeping well hydrated and nourished is essential for exercisers with cancer.
Exercise during cancer treatment gives patients a sense of control and normalcy, which contributes to overall quality of life as well as physical comfort. Working out also encourages connections with others and a sense of community. Fitness can also be an important aspect of post-cancer survival. Many cancer survivors commit to regular exercise as a part of their ongoing wellness regimen, but experts urge some caution for these individuals as well since treatments may have some lasting effects such as bone weakness or balance and coordination problems.
For those coping with cancer and its treatments, exercise offers benefits for mind, body and spirit. Along with treatments, nutrition and emotional support, new research suggests that working out may be the newest weapon in the fight against this disease.
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