How exercise helps the body heal after cancer treatment

How exercise helps the body heal after cancer treatment

Whether you have been recently diagnosed with cancer or are in survivorship, exercise can support your body’s healing process.

“Exercise is probably the most important thing you can do before starting cancer treatment,” says Joel Hardwick, ACSM EP-C, EIM2, an exercise physiologist at Piedmont Atlanta Fitness Center. “Physically active people tend to better handle side effects from chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.”

First things first: “Always consult your surgeon or oncologist before starting an exercise regimen,” he says. “I also strongly recommend meeting with an exercise physiologist. We can help you find the right exercises that support your goals, reduce your risk of injury and reduce your chances of lymphedema. Every type of cancer is different and has different restrictions.”

The healing benefits of exercise

Exercise can give you the strength and cardiovascular endurance to bounce back faster after treatment. It can:

  • Help you recover more quickly from surgery. “We have seen that when people increase their functional capacity before surgery, they recover faster, spend less time in the hospital and experience fewer complications,” says Hardwick. “If you have more muscle mass and strength going into treatment, you’ll have more strength at the end of it.”

  • Mitigate chemo side effects. “Exercise can help alleviate or prevent certain chemotherapy side effects like cardiotoxicity, peripheral neuropathy and fatigue,” he says.

  • Improve your mental and emotional well-being. Exercise has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. It also increases your endorphins and releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone, which can improve your mood.

  • Reduce chemo brain. “Physical activity has been shown to improve cognition and prevent memory loss, which may reduce chemo brain side effects,” says Hardwick.

  • Improve your sleep. Exercise can help you get a better night’s rest, which is essential to the healing process.

  • Make activities of daily living easier. Keeping up your strength and endurance can make your daily activities – such as cleaning your home, folding laundry or going grocery shopping – feel easier.

  • Reduce your chance of cancer recurrence. “One of the biggest indicators for cancer recurrence is body fat percentage,” says Hardwick. “Reducing your body fat can help reduce your risk of cancer recurrence.”  

The benefits of group exercise

Hardwick and his colleagues lead PINK at Piedmont, a breast cancer wellness program, and Cancer WellFit, an exercise program to improve the physical health and quality of life for people with cancer. He has seen participants experience tremendous benefits from group fitness.

Forming a connection to someone else who is going through the same situation as you provides an immense mental and emotional boost,” he says. “You begin to realize you are not alone and you have someone with whom you can share the experience.”

How to choose the right form of exercise for you

You don’t have to be a marathon runner to reap exercise’s benefits during cancer treatment.

Moderately active cardio is beneficial,” says Hardwick. “Do something you enjoy. If you like to walk and it doesn’t cause you pain, do it. You could also ride the stationary bike at the gym, do housework or lift light weights. The most important thing is to move.”

See more fun, feel-good ways to get moving.

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