Physical activity has been shown to have multiple benefits in patients undergoing a cancer diagnosis. Even mild exercise can increase energy levels, stimulate appetite, and help you relax; sometimes though this can be difficult due to fatigue or reduced mobility.
However both the cancer itself and side effects from cancer treatment can create barriers to exercise. Read on to find out why cancer and its treatment cause difficulty exercising, and what you can do about it.
What issues might you experience trying to exercise with cancer?
“I don’t like moving off the sofa, so the thought of exercise seems unreal.”
- Fatigue and a lack of energy
- Reduced mobility
Why and how does cancer cause these symptoms?
Cancer and Fatigue
The most common cause of fatigue in cancer patients is anaemia. Sufferers have a reduced red blood cell count, lowering the amount of oxygen available to the body to create energy therefore you feel tired more easily. Another cause of fatigue can be imbalances in the body’s salt levels or electrolytes. Some cancers and medicines can affect your electrolyte levels making it more difficult for your muscles to function. Also a poor diet or inadequate intake can mean your body is not getting enough nutrients and energy to be able to exercise well. Poor sleep and sleep deprivation are another well recognised cause of a sluggish mind and body which will exacerbate the feeling of fatigue.
Pain often comes from the tumour itself, as it puts pressure on nerves, organs or bones. Chemo, radiation and surgery can also damage tissue and nerves and therefore cause pain.
Your mobility is likely to get affected at some stage of treatment – either due to direct damage or pain to limbs or nerves over time, or due to fatigue or muscle loss from reduced activity due to increased time in bed.
Having to deal with changes to your body as a result of your cancer can mean you are unsure what level of activity is suitable for you. Fear of doing more harm by ‘over doing it’ may stop you from exploring safe exercises that can help you feel better in the long run.
Cancer and breathlessness
You may find you get breathless more easily. This can be due to cancers in the lungs or airways, fluid around the lungs caused by tumours elsewhere or side effects of treatment for example anaemia, radiotherapy or surgery on your lungs.
What can you do about these symptoms?
If you’re having trouble finding the energy to exercise
Feeling less tired and being well rested can help you find the energy to start exercising which in turn will help you feel more energised thanks to the release of endorphins.
Iron can help your body make new blood cells and improve your oxygen levels helping you feel more energised and active. Iron supplements are particularly helpful if you are suffering from iron deficiency anaemia.
There are many cancer cookbooks available with helpful recipes tailored to the needs of people with cancer. They make cooking and eating more enjoyable by offering easy and varied recipes. Helping you to get the right balance of nutrients and energy containing foods.
Aromatherapy oils and balms
Essential oils such as lavender and chamomile have been shown to help reduce insomnia. Using sleep balms and oils at bedtime should help you get a good night’s sleep and feel energised when you wake up.
There are many accessories that can help create a sleep inducing environment. Many people use eye-masks to ensure a completely dark environment, this helps improve sleep quality by reducing light triggers, allowing the body to release the sleep inducing hormone melatonin.
If you’re having problems with pain
By minimising your pain you will feel more able to exercise which will help build strength, improve posture and mobility all of which can help ease muscle tension and aches.
Cooling agents have been demonstrated to help reduce pain by distracting the nerve endings with a cold sensation, blocking them from detecting the pain sensation. They have also been shown to reduce swelling, inflammation and muscle spasms.
An alternative to cooling gels, heat packs also reduce pain. Research has long established the proven benefits of heat therapy alongside drugs for pain relief. Many cancer units now encourage you to continue using your heat packs during your hospital stay.
If you have reduced mobility
Many cancer patients suffer from reduced mobility and struggle to maintain their normal exercise routines or are unsure of how to start exercising. There are many simple and practical exercises that can be done around the home.
These mini-pedal bikes provide an easy solution for you to workout at home when you are rebuilding your physical condition.
Hand and forearm exercisers
Gripping and releasing these can help to rebuild or maintain strength in the hands and arms. This will help with daily activities like carrying the shopping or lifting a kettle full of water to make tea.
Exercise resistance bands
These elastic stretch bands are extremely portable and can be used in a wide variety of ways to gently stretch and exercise muscles in the arms, legs or core.
Yoga exercises and mats
Yoga and stretching are some of the simplest exercises to do at home. Studies have shown that yoga helps improve sleep and the quality of life in cancer survivors.
Balancing on exercise balls can help strengthen your core muscles. Core strength is important in maintaining correct posture and body alignment which will help overcome stiffness and muscle aches caused by incorrect posture.
If you feel anxious about exercising
Many people have told us that the biggest barrier to exercising is being unsure of what exercises are suitable for people with cancer and the fear of doing more harm than good. There are lots of useful books with exercises for people with cancer that can help guide you in planning your new exercise routine. If you are still unsure or have concerns, speak to your doctor.
Exercise planning books
These contain light physical activity plans specifically designed for cancer patients.
Yoga books and DVDs
Yoga can help reduce fatigue, strengthen pelvic floor muscles, and increase blood flow all of which will leave you feeling stronger and fitter.
Exercises you can do at home
We asked Lindsay Holden, PT, Nutritionist, and co-founder of PHIIT London Ltd., to provide some exercises and stretches that can be done in your living room, and some while sitting, helping you to add a little bit exercise into your life.
Please note: before starting any exercise, consult your treating doctor.
Start seated, and without using your hands for assistance push your weight evenly through your feet and stand up while squeezing your glutes. Slowly, and with control, return to a seated position and repeat. To make this exercise more challenging you can try standing on one leg.
Incline press ups
Adapt to your ability by varying the height of your press up. Start at the beginning by performing a press up with your hands on a wall, then progress lower to a kitchen worktop. Keep working your way down until you have the strength to have your hands on the floor.
Either holding onto a chair or with your hands on your hips, step one leg forward as you raise the heel on the back foot. Bend both knees as you lower the back knee to the floor and raise it back up again. Repeat 10 times on this leg, then do the same on the other side.
Seated Glute Stretch
Cross one foot over one knee and apply some pressure to the crossed leg at the knee. You should feel a stretch up the side of your leg and through your glute. Slightly leaning forward at the hip can help deepen the stretch. Hold for 10-15 seconds then repeat on the other side.
Incline glute bridge
Lie on you back with your feet resting on the chair. With your hands by your side, squeeze your glutes and raise your hips up off the floor slowly. Slowly and with control lower the hips. Repeat this several times. To progress further, try lifting with only one leg on the chair and one leg in the air.
Lindsay Holden is a Nutritionist (MSc.), Personal Trainer and co-founder of PHIIT studios.