exercising for cancer prevention

How to combat cancer with exercise

Written in collaboration with Kathryn Wytsma-Fisher, Kinesiologist

While most people are now aware that regular exercise reduces your risk of heart disease, many people are surprised to learn that physical activity also plays an important role in both the prevention and treatment of many types of cancer.

Since 25 per cent of all new cancer cases can be attributed to being overweight and having a sedentary lifestyle, health practitioners are now seeing the importance that exercise can have in not only the prevention of cancer – but also in improving a patient’s health after diagnosis, during treatment and throughout survivorship.

This has led to a paradigm shift in how medical professionals are now addressing cancer treatment: from a disease-focused perspective toward a more comprehensive, wellness-focused approach that includes physical activity.

Exercise is now encouraged, to varying degrees, after a cancer diagnosis to help effectively reduce the side effects of treatment and to mitigate the risk of recurrence. It has also been shown to improve mortality, the effectiveness of treatment, chemotherapy completion rates and both the overall function and quality of life in many patients.

Cancer prevention through exercise

If you’re looking to start an exercise program to reduce your risk of chronic diseases including cancer, it’s best to stick to the general exercise recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine. These recommendations include:

Aerobic exercise – 3-5 days per week, aiming for 75 minutes of vigorous intensity or 150 minutes of moderate-vigorous intensity activity

Resistance exercise – 2-3 days per week, including at least 1 set of 8-12 reps targeting all major muscle groups

Flexibility – 2-3 days per week, holding stretches for 10-30 seconds

However, when it comes to chronic diseases such as cancer, unfortunately there is nothing we can do to completely eliminate our risk. When prevention fails, there are several things to consider when planning your exercise program.

Things to consider while planning your exercise program after diagnosis

Offering specific tips for an exercise program that is suitable for you and your particular diagnosis is challenging. Given the diversity of the population affected by cancer, as well as the unique experiences each individual has with their diagnosis and therapy, a one-size-fits-all exercise program simply does not apply.

With that being said, here is a list of general do’s and don’ts for you to consider when starting a new exercise program that’s designed to help you through your cancer treatment process:

DO

  • Seek help – Talk to your doctor or to a cancer-certified exercise professional. They can help you personalize your activity program based on your individual pre-treatment fitness level, medical conditions, comorbidities and responses to treatment.
  • Adapt your activity – Given the fluctuating periods of sickness and fatigue throughout treatment, don’t hesitate to modify your exercise level whenever necessary.
  • Be aware of treatment-related toxicities – These can lead to an increased risk of fractures, cardiovascular events and neuropathies.

DON’T

  • Be inactive – Even if it’s just a walk around the block, something is better than nothing.
  • Overexert yourself – If you find yourself experiencing an abnormally rapid heart rate, shortness of breath or pain in movement, take a break from exercise and consult your oncologist.
  • Let fatigue get in your way – 90 per cent of all cancer survivors will experience cancer-related fatigue during their treatment. Aerobic exercise, even during treatment, can help greatly alleviate symptoms of fatigue.

Special considerations for breast cancer survivors

Watch for arm and shoulder symptoms, including lymphedema (swelling in your arms or legs). If symptoms arise, reduce resistance or stop the exercise and consult your oncologist or physiotherapist. Consider an arm and shoulder evaluation prior to upper body exercise.

Special considerations for prostate cancer survivors

Changes in body composition including bone loss, muscle loss and fat gain are common with treatment. Aerobic exercise can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight and also improve short-term fatigue and fitness.

Cardiovascular disease is a major cause of death in prostate cancer survivors. Physical activity helps reduce comorbid chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

For more information: 

The American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable on Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors Report and the American Cancer Society Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines are great resources to refer to.