Exercise during cancer treatment: 4 things to know

For years, doctors have recommended exercise to reduce the risk of developing cancer and to help cancer survivors thrive after treatment ends. But what about exercise during treatment? There were no recommendations, so far.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recently released the first-ever evidence-based exercise guidelines for adults undergoing active cancer treatment.

“It’s huge,” says Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., director of MD Anderson Center for Energy Balance in Cancer Prevention and Survival. “When patients asked if they should exercise during treatment, we had no official guidance on what to tell them. Now we do.

Years of clinical trials show the benefits of exercise

To develop the guidelines, ASCO assembled a panel of experts who analyzed more than 100 clinical trials examining the link between exercise and cancer treatment.

What they found left no doubt that staying physically active improved symptoms and side effects in patients undergoing chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both. It also helps those undergoing surgery recover faster with fewer complications.

“Science shows that exercise during cancer treatment alleviates fatigue, anxiety and depression while improving quality of life and physical function,” says Basen-Engquist. “Staying active helps patients continue to participate in regular activities of daily living.”

Yet, in the minds of many, exercise and cancer don’t go together, she says.

“You’d be surprised how many people believe that exercising during cancer treatment is a radical idea. They think cancer patients should curl up on the couch with a blanket and relax.

The new guidelines, according to Basen-Engquist, provide assurance that exercise is safe and good for patients during cancer treatment.

Building an Exercise Routine During Cancer Treatment

The guidelines recommend regular aerobic exercise – such as walking, jogging or cycling, and strength training – such as lifting weights or using resistance bands, for patients whose cancer has not spread to the beyond its initial site.

Aerobic exercise helps strengthen the heart and lungs. Resistance exercises build muscle.

“Both types of exercise can work together to help cancer patients maintain their health and well-being,” says Basen-Engquist.

Aerobic exercise should be done at moderate intensity, she says. It’s a rhythm that lets you talk, but not sing. This is compared to vigorous intensity, where you cannot say more than a few words without pausing to breathe.

Start slow, advises Basen-Engquist, and listen to your body. If your energy level is low, adjust the duration or intensity of your exercises until you feel better.

Set a goal of achieving 150 minutes of exercise per week.

“Spread those 150 minutes over several days,” she says. “I tell patients to aim for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, which equals 150 minutes.”

If 30 minutes is too much, she suggests 10 minutes of exercise in the morning, 10 minutes after lunch, and 10 minutes in the evening.

Walking is a good option, says Basen-Engquist. If walking isn’t for you, she says, some of her patients dance, swim, play golf, learn tai chi or garden.

“You’d be amazed at the muscle strength you develop pulling weeds,” she says.

How does exercise thwart cancer?

No one knows for sure, but Basen-Engquist points out that exercise lowers inflammation and insulin levels, which are linked to certain cancers.

Also, exercise induces angiogenesis, or the creation of new blood vessels, which could mean that more blood-based cancer drugs can be delivered to cancerous tumors.

“Exercise can make chemotherapy more effective,” she says.

Immune function also benefits. While cancer weakens the immune system, exercise stimulates the circulation of immune cells that attack cancer. It can even help powerful immunotherapy treatments work better.

Exercising during cancer treatment is not a one-size-fits-all solution

Exercising to improve outcomes during cancer treatment is empowering, says Basen-Engquist. It puts the patient back in control, at a time when the cancer has created a loss of control.

The amount of physical activity each patient can sustain varies.

“The type of cancer you have, the treatments you receive, the side effects you experience, and your level of fitness will all factor into your exercise plan,” says Basen-Engquist.

Talk to your doctor about what’s right for you, then start moving.

“Even if you can only manage a few minutes of walking, do it,” Basen-Engquist says. “Small steps lead to big results.”

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

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