Every January, it’s the same. For one magical month, people hit the gym, the Zumba studio or the jogging path like gangbusters, exercising as if their lives depended on it.
And, to some extent, they do. Regular physical activity is one of the most important things we can do to reduce our risk of cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases.
“Exercise helps moderate many things that can help cancers grow,” said Dr. Anne McTiernan of the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “For example, excess amount of insulin can promote cancer growth. Exercise reduces excessive production of insulin, even without weight loss. Exercise also helps reduce other cancer promoters such as estrogens, inflammation, and, in young women, progesterone.
“Some of these exercise effects are due to exercise helping to maintain body weight to help avoid overweight or obesity.”
Unfortunately, many people lose their resolve – and their leg up on cancer and other diseases -- within a few short, exhausting weeks. They try to do too much, too soon. They injure themselves or find they’re too tired or busy to fit it into their schedule on a regular basis.
“Many people have trouble finding time to exercise,” said McTiernan, who’s conducted extensive studies on exercise, weight loss and cancer prevention. Her suggestion: Find easy ways to dovetail exercise into everyday life.
“Take a 10-minute walk break at work rather than a donut break,” she said. “Or walk to talk with a coworker instead of emailing. Use stairs instead of elevators. Schedule in time for exercise like you do other appointments.”
Catherine Bauer, a 49-year-old breast cancer survivor from Seattle, said she walks, runs, hikes and tries to hit the gym at least four times a week.
“Ideally, you’re doing something every day,” she said. “But you don’t have to make it your whole life. If you keep your gym clothes in the car and you’re going by the gym, you can throw them on and do a quick 20 minutes and then go. Exercise helps me keep sane and get rid of stress and focus on healing now that I’m in recovery. For me, being in shape and not gaining weight is a big part of keeping cancer at bay.”
According to McTiernan, clinical trials have shown that exercise can improve some aspects of quality of life in cancer survivors by reducing symptoms of moderate or mild depression, fatigue and helping with sleep problems.
“Regular physical activity is also associated with improved survival,” she said, pointing to two epidemiological studies conducted at the Hutch.
Bauer said “exercise was huge” for her while undergoing chemo and radiation at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance in 2012.
“I’d go for a power walk every day – with whatever power I’d have,” she said. “Some days, it wasn’t a lot of power. It was just to the grocery store and home.”
While there are few published studies on exercise during cancer treatments, McTiernan said most experts do advise patients to keep active if they can.
“Moderate intensity (exercise) or greater shows better improvements in symptoms like fatigue, anxiety, and overall quality of health,” she said. “However, if a patient is too fatigued from their treatment, going for a stroll rather than trying to run might be more acceptable.”
Anita Austin, a 68-year-old leiomyosarcoma patient undergoing chemotherapy at SCCA, is not currently able to run or dance (her usual physical activities) but does walk with the help of a very motivating friend.
“I’ll tell my dog, ‘We’re going for a walk’ and then I’m committed,” she said. “His ears perk up and he’s running all over the house and there’s no way to back down. I’ll tell myself we’re only going to walk 20 minutes but after about 25 minutes, I pick up steam. And that’s when I can go 2.5 or 3 miles.
“I have no idea if exercise has made any difference for me, but I do know that it's good for my soul.”
Tips for making exercise part of your day:
• Take a 10-minute walk break at work rather than a snack break.
• Walk to talk with a co-worker instead of emailing.
• Make TV time an active time. Do some core/back/leg exercises like crunches or squats, or get an exercise machine like a stationary bike and use that while watching TV.
• Be active with your kids – if you’re watching their soccer game, walk around the field as you watch.
• Take active/walking vacations instead of driving ones.
• Use stairs instead of elevators.
• Schedule in time for exercise like you do other appointments.
• Go for a walk with a friend instead of getting coffee or beer.
Exercise tips for cancer survivors:
• Take classes with other survivors. Many gyms or hospitals or YMCAs offer these.
• Start walking with your spouse or friend. Start slow and advance slowly.
• Many survivors do well with strength training programs, which have been shown to improve strength and fitness. Strength training has been shown to be safe for breast cancer survivors – it doesn’t cause or worsen arm lymphedema.
• Some patients have reduced ability to fight infections during treatments, so for them, exercising at home or outdoors might be preferable to using a gym.
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Reach writer Diane Mapes by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.