EVERYONE CAN BENEFIT FROM EXERCISE, but among cancer survivors, physical activity has been shown to ease anxiety and depression, reduce fatigue and build physical stamina. The benefits may not stop there. A report published October 2020 in Seminars in Oncology Nursing found that after a cancer diagnosis, people with higher levels of physical activity have higher rates of survival.
The pandemic has made it more challenging to stay active. Gyms are a high-risk setting for transmission of the coronavirus, and many have been shut down by state or local governments. But working out at home can be just as effective, even in a small space with no exercise equipment. Erika Rees-Punia, an exercise physiologist who researches physical activity for the American Cancer Society in Chicago, recommends that cancer survivors aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise three times per week. During aerobic exercise at moderate intensity, you should be breathing more heavily than usual but still be able to hold a conversation, she says. People undergoing cancer treatment should get a doctor’s approval before starting a new exercise regimen, she says, but exercise is generally safe barring certain underlying conditions or recent abdominal surgery.
Strength training can benefit people with cancer.
People with cancer should include strength training in their exercise regimen at least twice per week, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. For each exercise, aim for two sets of eight to fifteen reps each, says Erika Rees-Punia, an exercise physiologist who researches physical activity for the American Cancer Society in Chicago.
At home, you may need to get creative, adds Rees-Punia. Dumbbells and resistance bands make strength training simple, but you don’t need any special equipment to work your muscles. Instead of lifting weights, try using household objects like cans of soup. Knowing how much weight to lift can be tricky. In addition to speaking with your doctor before starting a new workout routine, you may wish to consult with an exercise professional, or a certified cancer exercise trainer, to find the right regimen.
Body weight exercises are another way to build and maintain strength, and many exercises can be modified for beginners. For example, start by doing a standing pushup against a wall. As you grow stronger, you can move to a modified pushup from your knees and eventually to a regular pushup from a prone position.
For those who feel comfortable going outside while social distancing and wearing a mask, brisk walks can count toward weekly exercise goals, adds Rees-Punia. People who don’t want to leave the house can try free exercise videos online. YouTube is a great place to start: Search “aerobic workout” and add relevant keywords such as “beginner” or “cancer survivor.” You’ll find videos of various lengths that cater to every experience level, so be sure to choose a workout that you find fun and engaging. “The best exercise is the one that you’ll actually do,” Rees-Punia says.
Cancer survivors who are too fatigued to hit the weekly recommended target shouldn’t give up. “Some exercise is better than none,” Rees-Punia says. “If you’re undergoing treatment and you’re not feeling well, there’s no need to overdo it.”
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