Exercise – The Benefits of Being Physically Active

We all know that exercise comes with various benefits for our health and wellbeing. But did you know that regular exercise can help prevent certain cancers from recurring and lowers the risk of getting cancers in the first place?

Since my cancer diagnosis, I have been reading a lot about the benefits of a physically active lifestyle and wanted to share what I have learnt with you.

Benefits for Overall Health and Wellbeing

Weights for exercise
Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

But first, before going into cancer specific benefits, here’s a look at how exercise benefits us all.

  • Improves cardiovascular health and lowers blood pressure – Regular exercise will help to keep your arteries clear. It raises the levels of good cholesterol and lowers the levels of bad cholesterol. It will also strengthen your heart and help it pump blood more efficiently.
  • Respiratory system – regular cardio exercise helps to reduce symptoms of asthma. It can reduce the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. However, people with asthma should discuss new routines with their GP first.
  • Reduces chronic pain – I can vouch for this. Since my chemo- and radiotherapy treatments, I have had pains in my joints: knees, elbows and fingers. When I exercise regularly, the joints are less stiff and painful. They tell me straight away when I’m not doing enough. Those who can’t do high-impact cardio could try something low impact like swimming.
  • Better sleep – physical activity spends more energy so you feel more tired and readier to rest. Regular exercise can boost both the quality and duration of sleep. I have certainly noticed this with Justin. Since he got his cargo bike and has been cycling miles and miles each day, he has been sleeping like a log.
  • Strengthens the immune system – it helps the immune cells to perform more effectively and increases blood flow. It also benefits the immune system by reducing stress and inflammation.
  • Improved mood – when we exercise, our brain releases endorphins in the body. These feel-good chemicals boost the mood and help to reduce anxiety and stress.
  • Brain power – some evidence suggests that aerobic exercise may slow down loss of brain tissue and improve cognitive performance.
  • It lowers the risk of certain health conditions. The below table is a screenshot from the NHS website. Click here for a full-size version.
Screenshot by author of the benefits of exercise
Benefits of exercise from NHS website

Benefits Of Exercise For Cancer Patients, Survivors and Previvors

Macmillan Cancer Support has conducted studies and reviews on the benefits of exercise pre, during and post treatments. You can read the whole report here, but below is a summary of key information.

Before Treatment

Macmillan’s reviews have shown that exercise to increase fitness before surgery or therapies can help patients tolerate the treatments better and experience fewer complications. There is also some evidence that being physically active before an operation can lead to shorter hospital stays. This, though they still require more consistent evidence, is good news as nobody wants to stay at the hospital, eating hospital food for longer than necessary.

During Treatment

When a patient is undergoing chemo or radiotherapy, s/he can lose both cardiovascular and muscular fitness and experience fatigue. In my case, chemo wasn’t too bad; radiotherapy was worse. I have never felt worn out like I did following radiotherapy. Napping several times a day helped a little, but it took months to build up my energy levels.

In the past, the advice for cancer patients was to rest during their treatments. Macmillan says this was counterproductive as excessive resting can ‘worsen treatment-related loss of physical function’. There is growing evidence that a balance of exercise and rest helps to control fatigue and maintain physical function.

Post Treatment

Physically active lifestyle leads to increased survival time and reduces the risk of progression of the disease. According to Macmillan, the evidence is encouraging, though still preliminary.

“Macmillan cites research that found that people who took regular exercise had:

  • about 40% lower risk of breast cancer returning
  • approximately 50% lower risk of colon cancer returning or dying of colorectal cancer
  • and about30% lower risk of men dying from prostate cancer” (NHS)

Guidelines On Exercise

At the moment there are no official guidelines for people going through or post-treatment. The advice states that adults should aim to be active for at least 150 minutes of moderate activity during a week. Alternatively, the advice is to do 75 minutes of vigorous activity. Examples of moderate activity include walking and cycling, running and swimming are classed as more vigorous exercises.

People undergoing or post treatments should work up to the general expectations.

A Couple Of Things To Keep In Mind

  • If you have cancer that affects the bones, you might have a higher risk of break or fracture. You might want to avoid high-impact activities like running and try low impact activities like swimming instead.
  • Chemo and radiotherapy treatments lower your immune system. When your immune system is low, avoid exercising in gyms. Your doctor will be able to tell you when it is safe to return to the gym.
  • Some people experience peripheral neuropathy (pins and needles or loss of sensation) due to treatments. The advice for those people is to consider stationary exercise like using a stationary bike.
  • If you have had surgery, you most likely have to avoid vigorous exercise for a while. Again, your doctor will can advise you on suitable exercises and when you can get more active.

There is a wealth of advice from charities, including Macmillan and Cancer Research on exercising. If you need help to get started, you can speak to someone from the charities or download this handy guide from Macmillan to get more active.

I’m always happy to share how I got started with improving my own fitness levels after surgery. If you have any questions or comments, either use the comment box below or the contact form.  We would both love to hear from you.

Thank you for taking the time to visit our blog and reading the post. We hope to see you back again soon.

Until next time!

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