Exercise and Physical Wellness

Pumping iron, bro-sesh, hustle for that muscle, cardio is hardio, body pump, getting swole, booty gains… whatever you like to call it and however you like to do it, we all know exercise is good for us, especially when facing cancer.

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“Wait a minute, I thought you were supposed to rest and conserve all of your energy when battling this beast?”

According to new research, patients with cancer may be able to lower the risk of their disease worsening and improve their chances of survival if they engage in moderate daily exercise.

 It was once thought that exercise could be harmful or worsen the fatigue of those going through treatment therapies such as chemo and radiation. We now know that exercise is safe and quite beneficial when prescribed appropriately.

“How does exercise improve outcomes for cancer patients?”

While we haven’t yet pinpointed the exact reason, exercise has several biological effects on the body which could explain the associations with specific cancers.

  • Exercise lowers the level of hormones, such as estrogen and insulin, and certain growth factors in the body that have been associated with cancer development and progression.

  • By helping to prevent obesity, exercise decreases the harmful effects of obesity, such as the development of insulin resistance.

  • Exercise is known to reduce inflammation and improve immune system function.

  • Regular exercise also shortens the amount of time it takes for food to travel through the digestive tract, which decreases the exposure to possible carcinogens.

“What are some other benefits of exercise?”

Just to name a few:

  • Improved physical function

  • Improved strength and muscle mass

  • Improved mood

  • Reduced fatigue

  • Improved cardiovascular fitness

  • Improved quality of life

  • Improved self-esteem

As you can see, there is a lot to gain from a regular fitness routine. Fitness is a crucial pillar of the foundation for living an optimal life.

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“What is considered moderate daily exercise?”

In the exercise world, we think of moderate-intensity activity as anything that gets your heart rate up to 50 to 60 percent higher than its rate when you are at rest. A simpler way to tell if you’re in the moderate zone is to use the “talk test” When exercising at moderate intensity, you should be able to talk to others without gasping for air. Speaking will take a little more effort than usual, but you should be able to carry on a conversation.

This will look different for everyone depending on their current level of fitness. Moderate intensity exercise for our average Joe Schmoe (whose current level of fitness is “fitness whole pizza in his mouth”) is going to look quite a bit different than that of a professional athlete. What matters most is that you get up and moving.

“What type of exercise is recommended?”

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The American College of Sports Medicine recommends the following guidelines for cancer survivors:

  • Engage in 150 minutes per week in moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous physical activity.

  • Strength (resistance) training should be performed ≥2 times per week and should involve the 8 major muscle groups.

  • Exercise regimens should be adapted to individual abilities with consideration given to:    

  • Surgical effects (lymphedema, decrease range of motion, pain)

  • Side effects of chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation therapy (immune compromise, fatigue, peripheral neuropathy, weakness)

*The ACSM guidelines emphasize the importance of recognizing that even small amounts of exercise are better than none at all, and the benefits of exercise outweigh the risks. Cancer survivors can be referred to physical therapy, occupational therapy, or community-based or home-based programs as appropriate.

“When should I get started?”

As soon as possible. The sooner you begin your exercise routine, the faster you will reap the benefits.

In CrossFit, we often talk about what’s called the sickness wellness continuum. In short, if you start out on the more fit end of the spectrum and an unexpected illness or injury occurs, you are only set back towards the center of the spectrum, which we consider wellness. But let’s say you start out in the wellness area and you are met with the same unexpected illness or injury, now you’re set back to the sickness portion of the spectrum and your fight back to wellness will be that much more difficult. And if you begin on the sickness end of the spectrum, well, you get the picture.

The further you can set yourself towards the fitness end of the spectrum, the better off you will find yourself when life challenges you. I have met and worked with many people who have found themselves challenged by life. Those who have made fitness and nutrition a priority have an easier time facing these life challenges.

“How can I get started?”

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Find something you enjoy. Believe it or not, exercise can and should be enjoyable and fun. It’s something you do because you love yourself, not because you are punishing yourself.

As a CrossFit trainer, of course I’m going to recommend this route. When you start CrossFit, you immediately gain a community who will accept and encourage you just as you are, no matter where you are starting. CF trainers are trained to work with folks of all abilities, ages, challenges, etc. It’s not what people typically think it is, it is truly for everyone.

No matter what you choose, just get moving. Even when you are having a bad day or feel like you don’t have it in you, just show up and tell yourself you’re going to do the bare minimum. The minimum almost always turns into more once you get there. And even if it doesn’t, you’re still doing something, and something is better than nothing.