Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Potential Benefits of Exercise During Chemotherapy and Cancer Treatments

Cancer Survivors and Exercise - Photo by Dlwelsh00 at Wikimedia Commons
Many cancer patients have been encouraged to avoid exercising while receiving chemotherapy, but several recent studies have looked at the potential benefits of home-based and/or instructor-led exercise programs for those in the midst of cancer treatments.

Benefits of Cardiovascular Exercise

The NIH (National Institutes of Health) is conducting the Physical Exercise Adjuvant Chemotherapy Effectiveness Study to help learn more about how exercise may affect those undergoing cancer treatment. Previous studies regarding this issue tended to be small, not randomized, or may have lacked certain aspects of exercise physiology and may have produced inconsistent results, but trends in several recent studies have shown potential benefits, such as:
  • better cardiovascular fitness
  • less fatigue
  • better mood
  • higher rates of functioning
  • stronger immunity
This current NIH study involves a large sample group, a control group, and compares two different exercise programs: one that is home-based without resistance training and the other that includes high intensity exercises and resistance training with supervision. It will be interesting to see how these three groups compare at the conclusion of the study.

Exercise Barriers for Cancer Patients - Photo by Bidgee at Wikimedia Commons
Barriers to Exercising While Receiving Cancer Treatment

Those who were sedentary before being diagnosed with cancer may find it difficult to start an exercise program while receiving treatments, while survivors who were previously physically active on a regular basis may find it difficult to determine an optimal level for workouts that will leave them comfortably challenged. Sedentary groups may be less likely to participate in clinical trials related to exercise, so programs tailored to meet their needs may be lacking in the research.

Those who are receiving chemotherapy and radiation often experience many side effects that could alter a person's ability to fully participate in certain exercises. Some of these side effects include:
  • altered immunity
  • anemia
  • fatigue
  • nausea/vomiting/changes in appetite
  • constipation/diarrhea
  • hair loss
  • dry mouth/throat
  • skin changes
  • pain
  • swelling/fluid retention
  • urination changes
  • memory changes
Group exercise barriers could vary widely. For example, someone who has very low white blood cell counts may be more likely to develop infections if he or she is participating in group exercise classes. Lifting weights and other resistance training might increase edema (swelling) in a survivor who recently had surgery to remove cancer. Someone who has hair loss or other physical changes might hesitate to be around other people. Some group exercise instructors may tend to encourage participants to move to high intensity and high impact moves that might not be safe for someone receiving cancer treatment. Group exercise schedules might also conflict with numerous appointments for treatment.

Although exercising at home would provide for more ability to change one's schedule, home-based exercise programs also have potential barriers. Many people find self motivation to be challenging, and adding cancer treatment to the mix can make that even more difficult. Fatigue can be a vicious cycle. People participating in home-based programs might benefit from feedback to improve positions or performance or to better pace themselves. A cancer patient might be more likely to become dehydrated or fall or become weak while exercising and may not recognize early warning signs that might be noticed by an attentive exercise instructor. Many people receiving chemotherapy may feel isolated, and a home-based exercise program would not provide social interaction with others in the community. Those who are walking at or near their homes might become fatigued more quickly than expected and have a difficult time getting back home.

Safety Tips for Exercising While Undergoing Cancer Treatment © Katrena
Can People Safely Exercise While Being Treated for Cancer?

The answer to that question is best answered by one's personal physician. Although exercise does have numerous potential benefits, any exercise program has risks. Each cancer survivor has a unique history with individual needs, so a personalized exercise program may include various options that take into account one's previous physical activity and personal preferences, present health condition and concerns, access to exercise facilities/equipment and trained instructors, and more.

Find more articles by Katrena at the Fit Tips 4 Life site map.


National Cancer Institute Chemotherapy Side Effects Fact Sheet

National Institutes of Health December 7, 2010 BMC Cancer article by Hanna van Waart et. al.  "Design of the Physical exercise during Adjuvant Chemotherapy Effectiveness Study (PACES):A randomized controlled trial to evaluate effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of physical exercise in improving physical fitness and reducing fatigue"

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