It should be no surprise to you that exercise is an important pillar of health. In fact it has so many benefits that many experts agree that if it could be packaged into a pill it would be the most prescribed pill on the planet! But unfortunately less than a third of adults get the recommended amount of physical activity each week.
On top of this, sedentary behavior is on the rise. With more and more people sitting all day at work, sitting in their cars commuting, and sitting or lying down once they get home, it’s easy to see how this is true. Being sedentary (sitting 6 or more hours each day) increases your risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, or even early death…despite your minutes spent exercising. (read more: here & here)
So we have two goals…the first is to simply move more & sit less, while the second is to add in at least 30 minutes of moderate activity most days.
Why Be Active?
- Better weight control
- Improved insulin sensitivity & better blood sugar control
- Improved heart & lung health
- Stronger bones & muscles
- Improved digestion and more regular bowel movements
- Improved immunity
- Lower inflammation (unless you’re overdoing exercise)
- Mood enhancement
- Improved detoxification
I mean who doesn’t want all of that, right?
Can It Prevent Cancer?
When it comes to the prevention of cancer, exercise is equally impressive in its ability to help. There is evidence showing decreased risk with physical activity for 13 different cancers. The most evidence is with colon, breast, and endometrial cancers. Others include esophageal, liver, stomach, kidney, rectal, bladder, lung, head & neck, leukemia, and myeloma.
Plus if you consider that most cancer is caused from some combination of poor detoxification, digestion, and immune function, or even high insulin and blood sugar levels, you can see why exercise is an important component of an anti-cancer lifestyle; regardless of which cancer you’re facing or trying to prevent.
Another interesting benefit of exercise comes from its ability to increase blood flow and oxygenation of cells, including cancer cells. When cancer cells are bathed in oxygen, their activity slows. This can reduce the cancer’s ability to grow and spread. By helping the tissue return to its “pre-tumor state”, exercise prevents the development of a more aggressive or dangerous cancer.
The increased blood flow also means better delivery of cancer fighting nutrients to all of your cells (assuming you’re eating them).
Benefits During Cancer Treatment
Exercise is also helpful for people actively treating their cancer. There are hundreds of studies showing tangible benefits for patients with a variety of different cancers and at different stages. Here are some of the results exercise can provide.
- More energy
- Improved strength
- Less anxiety or depression
- Better sleep
- Better immune function
- Less treatment-related side effects
- Overall better quality of life
Exercise can help patients tolerate treatment better, even more aggressive treatments, and enhances cancer recovery. It can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence, second primary cancers, and other chronic diseases, as well as prolong survival.
One interesting study showed that adrenalin, released during vigorous exercise, prevented the spread and development of cancer metastases and made the cancer easier to treat! This was especially true with breast cancer.
Exercise is such an important adjunct in cancer treatment and recovery, that many professionals feel exercise should be prescribed to all cancer patients as part of their routine cancer care. I would argue that when combined with anti-cancer nutrition that could be a very powerful prescription. 💪
Thankfully the benefits of exercise don’t just end once treatment is complete. Research indicates that physical activity can have beneficial effects for cancer survivorship too; specifically with quality of life and reduced risk of recurrence or progression.
All the above benefits still apply too, meaning lower risk of other life threatening diseases, including a new cancer, and longer life overall.
How Much Is Enough?
Here’s the best part! You don’t need to spend hours and hours exercising each week in order to get all the above benefits.
The goal is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week…or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise.
This is equal to just 30 minutes, 5 days a week.
And if you don’t have the energy to do a full 30 minutes all at once, you can break it up over the day and still retain the benefits.
Ideally over the course of the week, 2 or 3 of your 30-minute sessions, would include resistance exercise targeting the major muscle groups in order to build strength.
For children the goal is higher at 60 minutes of physical activity every day, with at least 3 days each week of vigorous-intensity activity.
There is also some research to suggest a linear relationship between the amount of exercise and disease risk; meaning the more hours a person spent doing physical activity the lower their risk of disease or death. The benefits however tapered off at 1.8 hours per day.
Ideally you want to start an exercise routine before cancer treatment gets underway, especially if you’ve been inactive. But it’s important to start slow and progress incrementally.
What Activities Count?
First, let’s define “moderate” versus “vigorous” intensity exercise.
If you are walking for exercise, you need to be walking fast enough that you’re breathing is a bit harder (moderate) but not so hard that you can’t speak in full sentences (vigorous).
You can also use your “rate of perceived exertion” on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being at rest and 10 being too difficult. Moderate intensity would be around 5-7 using your breathing, heart rate, muscle ache, and level of sweat as indicators. Anything over 7 would be considered vigorous.
Once you have a sense of how hard your body is working, then the actual activity can be anything you want it to be:
- House Cleaning
- Yard Work
- …you get the idea!
One type of exercise that doesn’t get as much attention but is actually fantastic is Rebounding, or jumping on a mini-trampoline. Or in my case a full-size trampoline thanks to my kiddos. It moves your lymphatic fluid, which promotes detoxification and boosts your immune system. Rebounding also helps with balance and strengthens the entire musculoskeletal system.
If you have any physical limitations or concerns with your ability to start exercising make sure you talk to your physician and maybe even consult with a physical therapist too.
3 Steps To Move More
The most important take home message is to just get moving! Whatever you can do and for however long you can do it; some will always be better than none.
Step 1. Sit less and move more throughout the day
- Stand up every 30-45 minutes while working at your desk; grab some water, do a bit of stretching.
- Use the bathroom that’s farthest away from you.
- Use a standing desk and alternate sitting minutes with standing minutes.
- Stand up when you’re on the phone.
- Take a walk on your lunch break.
- Park farther away.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator.
- Schedule walking meetings.
Step 2. Add in moderate-intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes, 5 days per week
If you’re currently not doing any activity, then start with just 10 minutes at 2 different times during the day. Gradually work up to 30 minutes. If you’re already moving this much, then consider adding in more vigorous exercise at least a couple times during the week or see if you can push it longer than 30 minutes.
Step 3. Add 2 or 3 strength training sessions each week
Give yourself a couple of weeks to get used to daily aerobic exercise. Once this is in place and feels comfortable then try mixing up your activities by using at least 2 of those cardio sessions each week to do strength training or resistance exercise.
- Weights or Weight Machines
- Resistance Bands
- Body Weight with calisthenics, yoga, pilates, bootcamp, etc.
Start at step 1 and gradually add in more and more as you are able. If you make physical activity a part of your daily routine (perhaps even at the same time every day) it will be more likely to become a habit and much easier to maintain.
Make It Fun!
Making it fun will definitely make it easier to do. There are also a few ways to help you stay motivated. Tracking your activity, bringing your friends along with you, and mixing up your activity will all help you stick with your new routine.
Some people enjoy tracking their steps with either a pedometer or an app on their phone or watch. This can help you see how much you’re actually moving during the day. Most experts agree to aim for a goal of 10,000 steps each day. Other people like tracking their activity on their calendar or in an activity journal.
If you don’t enjoy exercising alone, then ask a friend to join you or see if your community offers a walking group or exercise class that you can join; you might even be able to find a group or class for people with cancer in your community.
Pick something you love and schedule it in. Be open to mixing up your activities so you don’t get bored and don’t be afraid to try something new. You might just surprise yourself at what you enjoy doing.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle after a cancer diagnosis is more important than ever and it takes a holistic plan. When approaching your healing from all angles, exercise should definitely be one of the pillars of your recovery plan.