Physical exercise in cancer

The list of benefits of physical exercise is very long, whether you have chronic illnesses or not. But in addition to physical exercise in cancer helps reduce fatigue and maintain mobility, facilitates rest, tones muscles, strengthens bones, cushions the effects of stress on health and helps improve mood. Therefore, with a medical control and a program adapted to each person, it becomes one more treatment.

The benefits of physical exercise

The list of benefits of physical exercise is very long. We saw it in a previous article. But we can remember the most important ones, which are valid for both people with cancer and people without the disease.

  • At the medical level, exercise helps keep weight off, maintains cardiovascular health, reduces the risk of diseases such as diabetes, increases muscle mass, strengthens bones, and reduces the impact of stress on the body.
  • On a psychological level it facilitates rest, increases self-esteem and reduces the symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress.
  • At a social level it strengthens relationships with others, contributes to increase confidence and teaches cooperative work and conflict resolution.

With a gray background is William Roberts’ definition of physical activity. We explain his lesser-known concepts: positive inotropic means it makes the heart beat harder (brings more blood and oxygen to the body). Cronotropic negative is that it lowers the heart rate. Vasodilator means it opens blood vessels.

Diuretic is that it facilitates the elimination of liquids through the urine. Anorectic is that it removes hunger (only with especially intense exercise and for a long time). Cathartic is that it has a slight laxative function. Hypoglycemic is that it reduces the level of sugar in the blood.

Physical exercise in cancer maintains all these benefits and adds others. They are important as they help the body adapt to the treatment and its side effects. Keep in mind that the treatment is usually long and, therefore, the option “I let a few days go by and then everything will return to normal” is not valid. You can go back to normal after cancer, but it will take some time to get there.

A very important benefit of physical exercise in cancer is the reduction of fatigue. Although it may seem contradictory to have a more or less regular programme of physical exercise with certain objectives, it increases the general physical energy.

And this happens because the heart pumps more efficiently and the blood circulates better. Therefore, the body does not have to make as much effort to maintain oxygen and nutrient levels.

Exercise in cancer is also useful in curbing mobility problems. Sometimes treatment can deteriorate joints, or surgery for breast cancer can affect the mobility of the arm of the band that has been intervened. Moving the limbs as far as possible helps maintain, at least partially, mobility.

Psychologically the advantages are also noticeable: Given the change in self-image and self-concept, physical exercise in cancer helps to improve self-esteem. It demonstrates to ourselves that we can continue to maintain an active life.

We also notice it in the mood: physical activity causes the release of endorphins, which make us feel better. Even in moments of feeling down, a minimum exercise such as getting up and walking around the house will help us to increase our well-being.

Socially, physical exercise in cancer is a way to break the isolation. It gives us the opportunity to share some time with other people. While we do a healthy activity for everyone, we talk about what worries us or distract ourselves from daily problems.

The consequences of sedentary life in cancer patients

The benefits of physical exercise in cancer can be read as losses when we do not do this activity. As we reduce movement the muscles deteriorate, so any movement we make with the muscles involved will cost us even more.

Also the heart will have to make more effort to get the blood to all the cells and this will force it to increase the rhythm. Therefore fatigue will also become more noticeable. We will soon get tired even when we do light activities.

If we are undergoing chemotherapy, we need the cardiovascular system to function in the best possible way, because the medicine must reach the whole body without requiring extra effort. Also, a good general condition will compensate for the side effects of this treatment.

But the effects of sedentary life will also be felt psychologically. The ground that we yield to disease in terms of reduced activity will be taken over by disease. This means that if we enter a cycle of inactivity it will be more and more difficult to reactivate ourselves. Mobility will be reduced and, for some basic activities of daily life, we will begin to depend on others.

How to Exercise When You Have Cancer

When starting to exercise in cancer the most important thing is to have previously spoken with the doctor. For several reasons:

  • It is who knows best the limitations of physical activity depending on the disease and treatment. For example, with lung cancer or cancer of the musculoskeletal system, exercise should be quite moderate.
  • You can recommend waiting, starting immediately, or doing it with more or less intensity.
  • You can suggest a specific programme (e.g. 30 minutes of walking, 6 days a week) and a specific type of exercise, such as swimming, Nordic Walking, etc.

From there, it’s all about starting. You don’t have to start at 100%: you can do it progressively. In physical activity, a little is better than nothing. So if the first day instead of walking 30 minutes we walk 10, we have already done activity and we will notice its benefits.

There are patients who have asked me if it is better to do it outside in the street or in an enclosed place. It depends on the type of exercise recommended by the doctor and the preferences of each one. But in times of extreme temperatures, such as in summer and winter, it is more comfortable to do it in an enclosed space. In addition, in a gym there are usually qualified personnel who will help us if there is any problem.

An example of outdoor activity is the one carried out by Althaia in Manresa: Nordic walking groups for patients who are following treatment for cancer.