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The Top 10 Reasons People with Cancer Should Exercise

Inspire Health Event Calendar January 30, 2018

There is an incredible body of scientific research exploring how profound the impacts of exercising during a diagnosis of cancer can be. The importance of individualization in exercise is also large and can look quite different person to person.  For some, daily exercise is walking to the end of the driveway and back, for others it is a longer walk, for others a yoga or group class.  Because of this need for individualization, it is always important to first talk with your physician and then work with an experienced Exercise Therapist.  This list serves to remind and motivate us that appropriate exercise should be a regular, and almost daily, habit. Without further ado, here it is:

#10 It’s free

Exercise equipment is nice to have, but certainly not required!

#9 Improve treatments

This one is relatively low on the list because the research is somewhat new. Some studies provide evidence that exercise improves the effects of certain chemotherapies. This may be because exercise can increase circulation, and therefore the movement of chemotherapy drugs into tumours. As well, there are studies that show that those who exercise during treatment may be more likely to complete their treatment.

#8 Improve body function and composition

This should really be broken up into multiple benefits, but then there’d be too many for a top 10 list. Exercise and physical activity can do great things to our body such as lower blood pressure, improve the immune system, reduce inflammation, lower stress hormones, improve neurological connections, develop new brain cells, improve cardiac  function, facilitate the movement of lymph, decrease visceral body fat, regulate blood glucose levels, and on and on….

#7 Reduce treatment side effects

Appropriate exercise or physical activity is recommended to help manage quite a number of side effects such as (but not limited to) peripheral neuropathy, lymphedema (at risk or currently have), cancer-related fatigue, overall body weakness, weight gain (or loss), joint stiffness, and loss of appetite. One important side effect is that exercise may help with…

#6 Pain relief

Pain can be debilitating, so reducing it is paramount to a person’s quality of life, making it our 6th reason to exercise during cancer. Endorphins produced during exercise are your body’s natural pain killers. Improved body composition and movement patterns may also lessen pain.

#5 Manage, prevent, or delay co-morbidities

Although cancer treatment, management, and recovery, are often a person’s primary concern, we must not forget about other potentially serious conditions that a person may have. Here, exercise is our friend again and can help with the management of osteoporosis, type II diabetes, most heart conditions, obesity, arthritis, and other chronic illnesses.

#4 Maintain independence

Exercise may reduce the effects that cancer or cancer treatment have on a person’s ability to perform activities of daily living. People who engage in exercise may be able to do activities such as cook meals, go to the washroom, shower, and grocery shop on their own at an older age than someone who is sedentary.

#3 Prevent or delay recurrence

A large number of studies have shown that exercise is associated with a decreased risk of cancer recurrence. This is one of the top concerns that a person with cancer may have.

#2 Increase survival

One of the most important reasons why we encourage people with a past or recent cancer diagnosis to exercise is that it may actually help us live longer! There is growing evidence that exercise may help fight cancer via immune function, blood flow control, muscle-to-cancer cross talk, or metabolic pathways.

#1 Exercise makes you feel better

This tops the list because we all want to do what makes us happy. Exercise releases hormones and chemicals in the brain that make us feel good and less stressed out. MRI brain scans after exercise show that most of the brain is ‘lit-up’ with these feel-good hormones. It may come as no surprise that exercise may improve depression, anxiety, self-esteem or happiness. We also have more energy when we exercise (provided it’s not too much). It may seem like a paradox to exert energy in order to improve energy but studies have consistently shown that exercise is one of the few ways to improve cancer-related fatigue. Give it a try! Stand up, go for a walk, or try a few arm and leg circles.

Additional Benefits:

  • Exercise may help you sleep better at night.
  • If you exercise regularly, then you are more likely eat more fruits and vegetables, drink less alcohol, and practice self-care in other aspects of your life.
  • Exercise is something that you have control over to improve your health.

With all these benefits, exercise may be viewed as a daily habit, like brushing your teeth. The benefits last as long as you’re physically active and are reduced depending on how long ago you stopped being active. If you have questions on how to get started or what type of exercise is best for you, then please contact us or an exercise professional with cancer-related experience.


Written by Terry Heidt, MSc, BHK, Exercise Therapist and Clinical Director at InspireHealth in Kelowna