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New Twist for Cancer Survivors: Exercise Makes a Difference

October 08, 2019

So much of cancer seems beyond your control, but staying as active as possible can be key to managing the side effects of the disease and treatment and improving survival.

Gretchin Bade, a physical therapist and program director of oncology with the Hartford Hospital Rehabilitation Network, cited at least 20 studies suggesting that people with breast, colorectal, prostate and ovarian cancer have a lower risk of cancer recurrence and improved survival if they are physically active as compared to inactive survivors.

She also said exercise has been shown to:

  • Decrease the side effects of cancer treatments.
  • Help in recovery after chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
  • Improve weight management.
  • Lower the risk of several chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which are more common in people who have survived cancer.
  • Boost psychological health.
  • Reduce cancer-related fatigue.
  • Increase muscle strength, which decreases the risk of falling and improves one’s ability to perform daily activities.

This, Bade said, is a shift in popular thinking.

“According to the American Cancer Society, people treated for cancer in the past people were often told by their healthcare team to rest and decrease their physical activity,” she said. “Newer research shows that exercise is not only safe during cancer treatment, but that it can improve daily function and quality of life.”

Too much rest, she said, can cause loss of body function, decreased flexibility and muscle weakness. This may be the reason providers are urging patients to be as physically active as possible during cancer treatment and into survivorship.

“Your goals of an exercise program will vary depending on where you are in your cancer journey,” Bade said. “During treatment, it is important to remain physically active but an exercise program should be based on what is safe and works best for you. The goal is to stay as active as possible but to be aware of safety concerns and modify your program accordingly.”

It’s important to talk to your provider before beginning an exercise program, and even enlist the support of a physical or occupational therapist, exercise physiologist or cancer exercise specialist. Each, Bade said, are trained in cancer care to put together a safe program.

Other ACS guidelines, she said, include:

  • Avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activities as soon as you can after diagnosis.
  • Start with regular, moderate physical activity such as anything that takes as much effort as a brisk walk. Your goal should be to work up to exercising at least 150 minutes per week.
  • Incorporate strength training exercises at least two days a week, starting with a supervised program.
  • Slowly increase your exercise time and intensity, listening to your body and pacing yourself accordingly.
  • Continue being active even when you are disease-free or stable.

“Patients should be prepared to go slower than they might have before cancer, but try progressing gently,” Bade said. “In time, you’ll find the right balance and be able to make physical activity part of your lifestyle.”

For more information on physical therapy for cancer patients, click here. For information on the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute, click here.