Regular exercise while undergoing treatment for cancer can help patients improve their health.
Did you know that cancer patients who exercised regularly during their treatment experienced 40 to 50 per cent less fatigue? According to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), patients who engaged in regular exercise had increased muscle strength, joint flexibility, and general conditioning – all of which may be impaired while recovering from surgery, or after receiving some treatment therapies. Regular exercise also helps to maintain healthy weight levels, which is important, as weight gain has been known to lead to recurrence of cancer, especially for breast, colon and prostate cancers.
When should I start?
The earlier, the better. Doctors such as Parkway Cancer Centre’s medical oncologist Dr Tan Wu Meng advocate getting into a suitable exercise regime as soon as possible as it might lower your risk for complications and reduce the amount of medication you’re likely to need.
Implementing a routine before treatment begins, especially if you are typically inactive, will be a great way to start.
If you are unsure about what type of exercises would benefit you, speak to your doctor or a physical therapist who works with cancer patients. He or she will be able to tailor an individualised exercise programme to suit your needs. For example, exercises can be prescribed to improve range of movements and prevent lymphedema, a chronic arm swelling that affects some breast cancer patients after lymph node removal.
What exercises can I do?
An all-rounded exercise programme has five components:
- Warm up – always start with warm up exercises such as shoulder shrugs, lifting your arms overhead, marching and knee lifts.
- Aerobic workout – to pump up heart rate, e.g. brisk walking, jogging, swimming or cycling.
- Strength training – to increase muscle tone, e.g. lifting weights, working with resistance bands or machine circuit.
- Stretching – to keep muscles and joints flexible.
- Cool down – end your session with stretching or flexibility exercises to relax your muscles.
The NCCN recommends starting slowly to avoid over-exertion and fatigue. Assess your personal fitness and comfort level before you begin – some people may want to start with a 10-minute brisk walk and others may find they can exercise for longer. If you were active before, you may want to lower the intensity of your workouts for a while. Keep in mind that your goal should be to have at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week or more. More importantly, pace yourself so you do not become fatigued, injured, or discouraged. More tips from the NCCN:
- If you do not have the energy to exercise for a full half hour, break it up. Try going for three 10-minute walks instead.
- Dress comfortably and keep hydrated.
- Gardening or house cleaning make great physical workouts too.
- Consider yoga and tai chi as they integrate movement and meditation and can enhance wellness.
- If on radiation therapy, avoid swimming pools as they can expose you to bacteria that may cause infections and the chlorine may irritate radiated skin.
- Listen to your body – do not exercise if you are not feeling well or running a fever.
What about after treatment?
Dr Tan suggests that patients should continue with exercising even after treatment has been concluded. Keeping physically active makes a positive difference to overall health.
For patients with advanced cancer, some level of physical activity can improve quality of life. Keep in mind to exercise gently; do not over exert; and get plenty of rest in between.
Written by Charmaine Ng