Adding exercise to your to-do list during the draining process can feel next to impossible. But certified cancer exercise specialist Denise Chakoian, owner of CORE, Cycle.Fitness.Lagree studio in Providence, RI, and a cancer survivor herself, says that it’s more than possible—it’s therapeutic. “You have to find what works for you and your body,” she says. Perhaps even more so than when you're healthy, exercise can have such profound physical and mental health benefits that it can even become a key player in getting and feeling better.
The benefits of exercising during cancer treatments
We often hear about the many reasons to stay physically active, but not typically in the context of an aggressive disease like cancer. However, this is where some of the powerful health-boosting effects can really shine.
For example, exercise can stimulate an increase in white blood cells, potent immune cells that can help fight the disease.
Chakoain says exercising during cancer treatments is also crucial for preserving your muscle mass and lean tissue. “The body’s muscle structure shifts during cancer treatment if a patient does not exercise at all,” she explains. Staying active can help keep you stronger, and avoid injury due to potential loss of bone or muscle.
“With months of chemotherapy without any kind of strength or cardio training, you risk not only muscle and cardiovascular loss, but bone density loss,” says Chakoian. “Keeping the muscles strong and the heart healthy helps the process of chemotherapy and other cancer-related treatments.”
We also can’t deny the power of the mind to influence how our bodies feel. Although getting diagnosed with a disease like cancer can cause anxiety and depression, building a positive mindset through physical activity can help your body fight it. “Your mental attitude can be your best medicine. Exercise during cancer can release a great deal of anxiety and stress,” says Chakoian.
Guidelines for safe exercise during chemotherapy and radiation
Chakoian says tips for exercising during cancer treatments of any kind are largely based on what your workout routine was prior to your diagnosis.
“If you are an avid runner, biker, or yogi, keep doing what you love to do, but you will have to learn modifications for every modality,” she says. For example, if you are a consistent runner, consider shortening your runs and jogging at an easier pace. Instead of doing speed workouts, stick with steady-state runs that keep your cardiovascular system strong without overtaxing the body.
Chakoian also recommends athletic patients alternate more vigorous activities like running or HIIT with a mind/body modality like yoga or Pilates on subsequent days to prevent over-stressing the body.
Try this calming yoga flow to help the body recover:
If you were mostly sedentary before your diagnosis, Chakoian advises a more gentle approach. “If someone has not exercised much prior to treatment, I would recommend light walking to start and build up every week,” Chakoian says. “For strength training, I would recommend doing only bodyweight exercises such as squats from a chair, and lunges holding onto a chair to begin, then removing your hands.”
Guidelines for exercising after cancer surgery
Activity restrictions, including what types of exercise you can and can’t do, after cancer surgery will depend on the type of surgery you had. However, Chakoian says there are a few general recommendations.
“The first thing you want to do after a cancer surgery is work on any lymphedema in the body that forms after surgery,” she says. This is the build-up of fluid in the soft body tissues in the area that you had the surgery in. “There are specific exercises for the upper and lower part of your body that you would do prior to any exercise routine to move the lymphedema prior to your fitness routine.” Consult with a cancer exercise specialist for the movements that will help you safely clear it out.
Precautions to take
Specific physical precautions and contraindications to exercise depend on your treatment. For example, if you have a port inserted in the chest for chemotherapy, and you will need to wait for the chest area to heal, which usually takes about four weeks, before doing any upper-body strength training.
The most important guideline is to listen to your body. Your healing obviously takes priority over your workout. Speak with your medical team about your fitness routine and consult with a cancer exercise specialist if possible. Chakoian wishes that physical activity was more often part of the discussion of treatment.
“The body is responsive. It recognizes exercise, and the blood flow you’re giving to your body during exercise and post-exercise can be very helpful to the blood count and the cells in terms of healing and replenishing,” she says.
Working out should add to the positives in your life—feeling better and getting better—not add more stress. “Exercise is something that you can feel good about that you are doing for yourself daily or weekly,” Chakoian says. “Find that one thing that motivates you daily, and do it.”
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