The Benefits of Physical Activity During Cancer Treatment and How to Begin

While this isn’t exclusively an exercise blog, if you’ve perused my posts you’ve probably noticed that I’m a huge proponent of exercise for both cancer patients and survivors (well, actually for everyone; but see my important message at the bottom of this post).

The best way to achieve this is to start exercising right now, if you are not yet, no matter what stage of the cancer experience you’re in.

There is a growing body of research that shows the benefits of exercise for cancer folk (I’ve written about it here). But the fact is that only about 17-37% of cancer survivors meet the minimum physical activity guidelines set out by the American Cancer Society (Hirschey et al., 2017, Cancer Nurs) even though doing so reduces the risk of cancer recurrence by 55%, not to mention the improvement in quality of life (Cannioto et al., 2021, J Natl Cancer Inst).

Exercise, the Cancer Fighter. In the not too distant future, your oncologist might hand you an exercise prescription as part of your cancer treatment.

Now, there is a call to include exercise as an adjuvant therapy for cancer for those who are currently undergoing chemotherapy. During the Oncology session of the 7th International Congress of the Spanish Society of Precision Health (SESAP) that took place in Spring 2022, Adrián Castillo García, a researcher at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Institute (IIBB) of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), reviewed recent studies regarding the benefits of exercise during cancer treatment, including the potential role that it had in “modulating the tumor microenvironment and immune function.”

You can read a synopsis of his statements here in the section entitled “Exercise as Oncological Therapy” (starting towards the bottom of page 2). Castillo states that physical exercise “has been shown to have the ability to modulate the tumor environment… . This modulating effect translates into an improvement in the efficacy of chemotherapy and other oncological treatments.”

Castillo goes on to say that “prescribing doses of physical activity at an established intensity and volume can be very decisive in combating the tumor microenvironment, but this preliminary evidence must be confirmed in trials on humans to ratify the role of exercise as a treatment capable of improving the efficacy of the main therapies.” (All quotes from the aforementioned synopsis.)

With such promising results, it’s quite possible that future cancer treatments may be a combination of medicine and physical activity.

Ok, so say that you are not an avid exerciser, but motivated by these studies you’re willing to give regular exercise a go. What do you do when you’re already feeling fatigued from treatments?

I wrote about this here, but in a nutshell, the idea is that you need to decide what the right starting point is for you, and this will depend on your previous experiences, both physical and emotional, with a physical activity program. It will also depend on what you can manage at any given time in your treatment.

Starting an exercise program? Make it something that you can do and enjoy, and it will become a life-long habit.

Ask yourself, “what is reasonable for me?” But don’t respond to that with a t-shirt slogan-type answer (“Exercise? I thought you said extra fries?!?”) that immediately shuts down the idea. Admittedly, there may be times during treatment that getting yourself to the toilet without help is a momumental achievement. But that will pass. And exercise will make you feel more in control of your health and better overall.

IMPORTANT: Find what you can do and then do it as consistently as you can.

This may mean starting very simply [always get your doctor’s okay first!]. Choose an activity, duration and frequency, say, brisk walking for 20 minutes a day, three days a week. Follow that pattern for two weeks, then add to it–perhaps another 10 minutes–not to overwhelm yourself, but simply to push the edge a bit (you can always ease off if you need to, give it a week and increase again). If possible, increase some aspect of your program every couple of weeks, as it suits your condition. In the example of walking, incorporate a flight of stairs and gradual upper body movements: first pumping the arms, then hand weights, eventually strength training for both upper and lower body.

The timing is up to you.

If a walking program feels too easy for you, train at a higher level, but remember that the same concepts still apply: (1) consistency, (2) progression, (3) balance in your activities. If you’re interested, read my post about my three “pillars” of fitness.

Most importantly, start, progress gradually and keep it up for the rest of your life.

If your starting point is a standstill, this will take patience. But I PROMISE you, no matter what you can muster, it will still be better than doing nothing.

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I know I already said this, but it bears repeating, especially for cancer patients and survivors: do not start any exercise program without consulting with your medical team first. While I feel that improving your physical fitness is one of the best things you can do for yourself, every body is different and every cancer situation is different. Talk to your doctor and let them know what you’re planning to do.

Three Pillars of Fitness: Consistency, Progression and Balance

Although this is a blog about cancer and mindfulness, I hardly think there is any lifestyle habit as effective as exercise at helping survive cancer. And what better time to discuss this than the start of a hopeful new year?

I’ve been certified as a personal trainer by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) for well over a decade, and although I haven’t actively taken on clients, I’ve had enough time to develop my own fitness philosophy. I must stress, this is a conceptual post and not designed to guide you to specific exercises (although I mention some modalities as examples). However, if you’ve had trouble getting your head around how to maintain an active lifestyle, these ideas may help.

In my experience, there are three critical aspects to a successful exercise program: (1) consistency, (2) progression and (3) balance.

CONSISTENCY

This is the most important concept of my three and worth spending the most time on.

Consistency is the concept that seems to be most difficult for people, and it’s usually the “make-or-break” aspect of fitness. It’s quite simple to get motivated to start a new program, whether it be signing up for classes, planning out home workouts or simply deciding to go for a brisk walk every day.

The hard part is sticking with it. But I can promise you, that’s where the magic is. Be realistic about how much time you have to devote on a daily basis and what your exercise will consist of. This should not be something far out of your realm of experience or else it will be too difficult to maintain. Make it familiar.

When starting out, pick something you enjoy doing and it’ll be easier to keep doing it!

For example, if you do not already have a consistent history with a piece of exercise equipment (say, treadmill), do not purchase one under the assumption that the high price tag will surely motivate you to use it. It will not. The greatest workout you’ll get with it is carrying it to the basement or attic after you can no longer stand the guilt of watching it gather dust.

If you can’t maintain your workouts, you will have to go through the “beginner” phase every time you summon the wherewithal to restart again.

That also means going through “beginner soreness”. Honestly, there’s little pleasure in a Groundhog Day-like experience of not being able to get past the little aches and pains you might feel after getting your body into motion again. Don’t do this to yourself.

How to avoid it? Look at exercise as a lifelong habit, not something you do just to “get in shape” for a specific event like a wedding or reunion. Take smaller bites of exercise, something very doable that you won’t dread, especially if you have negative associations with workouts. Set goals like “train 5 days a week” and plan them out, not “lose 15 pounds” or even worse “look better” (what’s that?). It’s more motivating being able to tick off a specific, finite goal than never reaching one that’s vague, arbitrary and even judgemental.

And DO consider it “training”. You are training for living the rest of your life with more ease, maintaining your flexibility, balance, strength and endurance just that much longer. As in the tale of the tortoise and the hare, starting something that seems “not vigorous enough” but that you can see yourself doing, say, every day, in a year will put you miles ahead of someone who started an ambitious and complicated exercise program and burned out in a matter of weeks.

The fitness industry is banking on the fact that people will start exercising and then give up, only to start again later. And eventually give up again.

Look at it this way: the trillion-dollar exercise industry is betting on you giving up, and so it always comes up with a new shiny object to tempt you with. Often the program is unsustainable and the promised results are unrealistic. You don’t need that. You need consistency.

Again, decide what you can do and do it regularly. Realize there will be days when it won’t be possible to get it done. That’s okay – no guilt, no shame. But then get right back to it as soon as you can. Think of every workout as something positive and precious that provides you with health benefits that no one else will be able to take away. Each day you exercise is one more step towards establishing a habit that will lead to a lifetime of fitness.

Got your exercise in? MARK IT OFF!

IMPORTANT: Put up a high-visibility calendar where you can mark off your workouts and easily see how consistent you are.

But what if it gets TOO easy? That’s when the next pillar comes in…

PROGRESSION

Once you’ve established an exercise habit, your body will eventually adapt to what you’re doing. This is a very good thing. It also means that it’s time to change things up a bit, always giving yourself permission to dial back down to what you’d been doing previously if you have a harder time getting going on any given day.

Is your walking route getting too easy? Make a detour to a set of stairs and get your heart rate up!

The trick is to maintain consistency while also challenging yourself. For example, if you were doing a walking program, incorporate bodyweight exercises (squats, modified push-ups) that you can do along the way. Climb more hills. Pick up the pace.

If you want to get a PhD, you don’t keep taking freshman-level classes. Challenge is where growth happens. We get an unmistakable sense of satisfaction putting in the work and seeing results.

This is also where your self-confidence blossoms. And that’s exactly the bouyed spirit that keeps you going.

Don’t ramp everything up at once. Add a little at a time, but definitely make it count. Be realistic about whether or not you’re challenging yourself: if you need to push it even more and can do so safely, go for it. If you honestly try but can’t do as much as you expected, halve the amount and try again. Don’t beat yourself up. You will get there. But don’t short-change yourself either.

Keep writing it down! When you’re ramping up your fitness program it’s important to keep track of your progress.

Most importantly, unlike high school PhysEd class, you’re in charge. That also means you’re responsible for your own progress. Some workouts will be better than others, but always remember, doing anything is STILL better than binge-watching Netflix with a bowl of chips on your lap. Congratulate yourself for making the decision to exercise!

Hey, why not watch Netflix while marching in place? It still counts so write it down!

So let’s assume that you’re being consistent and gradually increasing the duration/intensity of your workout. That’s perfect, but there’s one more pillar to consider…

BALANCE

In this case, I don’t mean balance as in being able to hold tree pose throughout your entire lunchbreak. I mean are your workouts well-rounded? I’ve seen runners do little else but run. If this is you, incorporate some variety into your life. Your running will improve if you are also training for strength and flexibility.

Hey, your other shoulder needs massaging too!

Here’s a simple analogy for balancing out your workouts: imagine getting a massage regularly, but on only the left side of your body. That side will feel great, but you’re missing something. Your right side needs some love too. Eventually that imbalance will affect you negatively.

Exercise programs are best when they are a melange of endurance, conditioning, strength work and staying limber. It is extremely tempting, once you become adept at an exercise modality, to keep at it at the exclusion of everything else. After all, you’re an expert in it. But you’re also opening yourself up to injury and that’s something no one needs.

Treat your body to something new just to keep things interesting.

Take the time to explore different modalities. Often a type of exercise (say, yoga) can cover a number of bases, but you will still need to supplement with other exercises to stay truly well-rounded. Even strength training (which I consider critically important, btw) can have a cardio effect, but much will depend on how your workout is structured.

Do some research but don’t over think this. Just make sure that you are supporting all your body’s needs. Taking the runner’s example again, strength training will help you maintain muscle mass that you might lose from too much running, and it, along with flexibility and mobility work, will help prevent overuse injuries.

This doesn’t mean that you have to significantly increase the number of workouts you do, just that you have to be creative in what you add to your exercise session. The idea is to incorporate what else your body needs to keep it humming optimally. And then, write it down.

BOTTOM LINE

Bottom line when you’re just starting out? Move. Even if you don’t really know what exercise you “should” do, just find a way to move. Dance. Wave your arms over your head. Break up sedentary times as much as possible. If you sit for an hour, stand up and walk in place for three minutes, swinging your arms. Don’t be afraid to work up a sweat.

Then keep doing it.

When you establsh one healthy habit, it’s easier to incorporate others to support it.

Above all, make it pleasant, so that you look forward to exercise as a break from those things in our environment that keep us sedentary. The human body was meant to move. That is its natural state. Give it the opportunity to do what it’s supposed to do, then let it recouperate and nourish it with healthy food. The idea is to start now and keep going for the rest of your life.

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Being an avid exerciser enable me to recover from cancer treatment much more quickly. Up until my last couple of infusions, I was rowing and lifting weights within a week after each chemo (mine were spaced three weeks apart). In an out-of-control situation like cancer, exercise was one constant that made me feel like I still had a grip something, and that made the whole experience better.

Why Do We Demand Superhumans?

“…and a shoutout to Sharon in Accounting for submitting her financial report on time from her hospital bed, even with spotty WiFi. Way to show that losing both arms in a car accident doesn’t mean you can’t type with your nose! Everyone else, what’s your excuse?”

We in the US seem to take particular pride in demonstrating our inability to maintain a sane balance in our lives, viewing those who don’t exhibit an indomitable will as not trying hard enough.

Persevering in the face of adversity is laudable. But then, is experiencing difficulty doing so a weakness? Or just confirmation that we can be vulnerable and have limitations, and that’s perfectly acceptable?

It’s not always possible to rise to the occasion. Cancer patients experience this. They are told to “be strong, you can beat this!” “Never give up!” They are supposed to be warriors with limitless energy for the fight.

Lemme tell ya, sometimes you don’t feel like a fighter. Sometimes all you can do is just show up, and that’s a victory.

It’s okay to be just human.

But there’s always that one person who manages a quasi-superhuman feat while undergoing a particularly grueling treatment. We’ve all heard about their inspiring story because they’ve been held up as a shining example of what can be accomplished even in the darkest of times and most difficult of situations. So if they can do it and you can’t, what’s wrong with you?

Maybe there’s nothing wrong, maybe it just means that the most important thing in your life is to focus inwardly on your healing in whatever way you need to. Why should relentless productivity overshadow self-care?

Every being has limits, and where exactly they lie will vary between individuals and depend upon their circumstances. Not having the energy to push on where someone else did does not make you a lazy or unmotivated or selfish person. It just means that, yep, you’re still human.

A wise man once said to me, “There is no special place in heaven for people who don’t take care of themselves.” It’s time to stop acting like there is — so go home and get some rest.