In general, the exercise guidelines for cancer patients and survivors are similar to the guidelines for the general public. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, you should:
1. Be active
2. Perform aerobic exercise
3. Perform resistance exercise
In general, exercise can be broken down into a few basic elements. Having a general understanding of them can help ensure you safely maximize your benefits. The basic elements of exercise:
Ideally, you should make time to exercise most days of the week. This is important because, on top of missing out on the benefits of exercise, prolonged periods of inactivity are associated with negative changes throughout your body. This is especially relevant for cancer patients or survivors who may not feel well after their treatments and who are more likely to be inactive.
Intensity matters! Exercise intensity is one of the most important considerations for exercise. Exercise intensities that are too low may not challenge your body enough to cause positive changes. Exercise intensities that are too high may not be safe for everyone.
According to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, exercise intensity can be described as follows:
Although some exercise is always better than no exercise, you need to sustain your exercise for at least 15 minutes or more to really benefit from its protective effects. However, don't worry if you can't maintain the activity for 15 minutes at first. By breaking your exercise time down into more manageable chunks — for example five minutes of an activity done three times throughout the day — you can still add up enough exercise in a day to benefit from it!
The two main types of exercise that may help prevent and treat cancer-related cardiotoxicity are aerobic exercise training and resistance exercise training.
Aerobic exercise training is a type of physical activity that you can keep up for more than a couple minutes. It increases your heart rate and causes you to become short of breath (brisk walking, biking, swimming and dancing).
Resistance exercise training requires your muscles to contract against resistance using either gravity (body weight, dumbbells) or resistance bands at a high enough intensity that you can perform 8-20 repetitions before feeling tired. Talk to your health care professional about how much weight would be a good amount for you to work with.
Your body is incredibly resilient and adaptable! You will likely notice that the more you exercise the easier it becomes. This is a good sign! However, to get the most out of your exercise, you need to keep challenging your body. Although this may sound intimidating, it really is not that difficult. Remember the basic elements of exercise: frequency, intensity, time, and type. Any time you notice an exercise getting easier, all you need to do is change one of these basic elements. Here are some examples:
The key here is to remember to keep it safe and simple: Only change one thing at a time. Doing so will help ensure that you do not injure yourself by overtraining. It also will help you keep track of what changes work best for you. If you have any concerns with exercise or unclear how to star, talk with you healthcare team and they may create an exercise prescription for you.
Rest is an important part of every exercise program! There are actually two types of recovery to keep in mind: passive rest and active rest:
Building both types of rest into your routine will help you get the most out of your exercise by lower your risk of injury and giving your body more time to recover.
For example, instead of going for the same brisk 45-minute walk after dinner each night (seven days a week), mix it up a little. Try walking the route a little faster 1-2 times a week (complete your regular route in 30 to 35 minutes), a little slower 1-2 times a week (give yourself 55-60 minutes), and adding 1-2 days of rest into your schedule.
Cancer really does change everything, but figuring out how to keep moving and incorporating exercise into your life is a vital part of recovery. By working with your health and exercise team, you can stay active without exposing yourself to unnecessary risks!
Speaking with your surgeon and medical/radiation oncologist are great ways to get informed about these risks. However, beyond safety issues, they may not know much about the best way to incorporate exercise into your life.
**We also recommend seeking advice from, or working with, a cancer-experienced exercise specialist (for example clinical exercise physiologist, kinesiologist, physiotherapist) before initiating a new exercise program after a cancer diagnosis.
How do you find someone who is qualified? Exercise oncology is a relatively new area of expertise, so finding someone with the training and experience may not be easy.
Here are a few tips/questions to aid in your search.