Cancer and Exercise

The American Cancer Society recommends at least 150 minutes of moderately intense activity each week for adults. This is equal to a brisk walk of about 3 miles per hour. More vigorous activity where you raise your heartbeat and sweat for 75 minutes each week can be swapped for the 150 minutes. Spreading these minutes throughout the week is preferred over cramming them into one day or activity.

Exercise won’t prevent cancer, but it can lower risk. It’s shocking how many sources still falsely claim exercise prevents cancer.

With that being said, exercise can improve overall survival for those going through treatment and for those with metastatic cancer. I have heard this from my doctors, nurses, and so many articles I’ve read. Overall survival is still a murky, unspecified amount of time. I do believe exercise has been a factor in my survival with metastatic cancer.

Exercising while receiving treatment for cancer is encouraged, always with the caveat to do what you are able. Run it by your doctor (pun intended) if you’re starting something new. Walking, lifting weights, running, yoga, swimming, etc. all reap similar benefits of maintaining healthy weight, improving heart and lung fitness, increasing muscle strength and endurance, and managing stress. Boosting immune functioning, energy, and improving sleep are additional benefits of exercise. The benefits go on and on.

Maintaining a healthy weight is a problem for me. I’ve maintained my slightly above average weight for 2-3 years. I blame it on treatment drugs and steroids. Ice cream has always been in the background. It’s hard to blame something you love. Whether my weight is considered healthy or not, I’ve maintained it in addition to maintaining an exercise and movement schedule.

I exercise even on days when I feel poorly because I believe it can affect my overall survival. I don’t have a choice. Sometimes it even makes whatever is bothering me (mood, fatigue, aches) go away. I upgraded my Fitbit to a higher version and now need to contend with something called zone minutes rather than just total active minutes. These zone minutes are the equivalent of the 150 minutes of moderately intense activity. Whereas I had no trouble reaching my active minutes, it was a wakeup call that I needed to do more to meet cardio targets. Now I’m getting those minutes and more thanks to work with my weights and walking.

Personally, I have many reasons why I exercise.

• I know I’m healthier when I exercise.

• I can see myself making progress and getting stronger.

• Regular exercise, especially cardio, boosts my immune system. When I encounter bumps like an infection or minor procedures, I think I recover faster if I’m making an effort to care for my body. If this is only psychological, it still works for me (much in the same way I see dark chocolate as a health food).

• From a treatment perspective, exercise and moving helps me do better with treatment and side effects.

• Exercise also keeps me alive. Again, I think it makes a difference. Staying alive is a HUGE benefit to me.

I know it takes me longer to achieve physical goals and longer to recover once I have. I exercise so I have a chance at keeping up if I’m with others.

• Exercise relieves stress and provides more energy.

• Exercise makes me feel more like me.

• I exercise for me and I do it for those I love.

I mentioned above that exercise helps me deal with bumps in the road better. A case in point involves issues I’ve had with my port. I had zero pain and didn’t take one Tylenol after it was replaced. The next morning, I got up early to do weights before my treatment. I started literally with just the motions and used lighter weights before feeling comfortable to do my normal routine. The day after that, I walked my 5K route. My surgeon said he wouldn’t tell people to alter any of their activities, so I proceeded as normally as I could. Exercise is part of my normal routine.

Walking is my favorite way to exercise. I don’t need a power workout every day. A brisk walk of 3 miles an hour done a few times a week surpasses 150 minutes a week. Breaking it down to 30 minutes a day for five days a week is another way to get your minutes. Some of the nitty gritty behind the health benefits of walking include better heart and lung fitness, stronger bones and improved balance, and increased muscle strength and endurance. Walking can also help manage conditions like high blood pressure, joint and muscle stiffness, and diabetes. No fancy equipment is needed, and it can be done almost anywhere. Just be sure to avoid cars, wild animals, and cliffs and such.

Weights are my second favorite way to exercise. I love meeting goals and seeing myself improve. I hate backing off when I’ve needed to readjust my goals and do less when my body isn’t up to lifting. Then I lose ground and feel frustrated because I have to work three times harder to regain half of what I once was able to do. The satisfaction is just as sweet when I reach a new (or new again) benchmark. Presses, deadlifts, squats, swings, rows, and halos give me lots of variety and opportunity for a love hate type of workout. I like that strength training increases my bone density and reduces the risk of fractures. I don’t mind the increased muscle mass either. Perhaps this is because it’s such a minimal change in my situation. I’m not known for my abs of steel . . . yet. I’m not sure what I’m known for.

Swimming may be a great choice if you’re looking for something that takes stress off your body and joints. It has many of the same benefits as walking in terms of cardiovascular and pulmonary health, maintaining a healthy weight, and building muscle strength and stamina. Walking is easy on a person’s joints, but swimming is even easier on joints because the water removes a lot of impact stress on your body. I have never been a strong swimmer and have lost any minimal ability I had other than floating. I thought it would be an easy way to work all my muscles and stay fit and was almost ready to sign up for lessons. Building endurance and cardiovascular fitness might even be fun and not feel like work that involves sweat and exhaustion. Then Covid-19 hit and my thoughts of swimming sank like a steel anchor.

Biking is another one of my favorite ways to exercise because it involves fitness with enjoying bike trails. I joke that it’s something I can do while technically sitting down, but I’ve realized I’m fairly serious about it. Sitting down has its merits. Like swimming, it’s easier on the joints and is good for building muscles. I don’t get to bike as often as I’d like because of the effort involved attaching the bike rack to my car, loading and unloading my bike, and making sure I still have energy to do some quality biking.

Yoga looks easier because it has some of those sitting down poses, or even lying down poses, but it’s deceiving. I’ve made this comment before. Maybe this is because I find strength, balance, and flexibility at the same time incredibly challenging. Yoga pushes me. Holding poses forces me to slow down and not try to lift more or be faster. Sometimes just being in the moment is work enough and that is the magic of yoga. Working on flexibility is good practice for me. God knows my life needs physical and emotional flexibility.

Being physically fit can make living with cancer a little easier. I’ve found information on exercise is out there for those going through treatment and post recovery. Exercise is addressed as making short term treatment easier and post treatment recovery smoother. It is touted as reducing risk for everyone, not a guarantee. I had trouble finding much on how exercise helps those of us living with metastatic cancer. It figures. The Stage IV population is frequently left out of topics that includes other cancer stages. I’ve made the decision to extend the exercise recommendations to me and those with Stage IV. Dealing with ongoing cancer is as important as short term treatment and recovery. We all need to be included. Lessening side effects, extending overall survival, and feeling good are all important. For everyone.

Always.

For further reading: My friend and fellow blogger Gogs Gagnon has written about the importance of exercise as part of his post prostate cancer survivorship plan. You can read about his thoughts and perspective here.