For someone struggling with any type of cancer, exercise may be the last thing on his or her mind. Cancer and its treatments cause symptoms ranging from pain to shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, and other symptoms that do not seem conducive to physical activity. However, experts urge mesothelioma patients and other cancer patients to begin a guided exercise routine because it has been found to lower fatigue, reduce treatment side effects, and improve overall quality of life.
A good exercise routine should include both cardiovascular activity and strength training. Building muscle through strength training is particularly important for cancer patients because it helps to prevent and reverse muscle loss. Being stronger helps reduce pain, improve mobility, mitigate cancer side effects, reduce fatigue, and make life more enjoyable.
Experts Encourage Cancer Patients to Be Active
Patients with all types of cancer, including mesothelioma, are encouraged by experts to avoid inactivity. Exercise for someone struggling with cancer may look very different than for a healthy individual, but even highly modified and restricted, exercise is important and beneficial. A panel convened by the American College of Sports Medicine set out physical activity guidelines in 2009 for cancer patients, both those going through treatment and those who have completed treatment.
The guidelines state that these patients need exercise because it improves quality of life, reduces fatigue, and improves overall physical functioning. Researchers have seen gains and improvements even when comparing patients who take short walks daily to those who get no physical activity at all. The guidelines include accommodations that can be made for people with specific symptoms or types of cancer, but the overarching message is that, if possible, cancer patients should be getting some amount of exercise regularly. Here are some of the top reasons why:
1. Strength Training and Exercise Relieve Fatigue
One of the most difficult things about living with cancer and its treatments is fatigue. Most patients experience fatigue that goes beyond normal tiredness. It is an overwhelming feeling that prevents a person from even wanting to get out of bed. With fatigue, everything about life is more difficult, from the necessary things like going to treatment appointments to those things that give life joy and meaning, like spending time with friends and family.
Exercise of all types, but also strength training, has been proven to significantly reduce fatigue in cancer patients. Those who exercise regularly experience between 40 percent and 50 percent less fatigue that those patients that are inactive, according to research. It may be difficult to overcome the hurdle of fatigue to begin exercising, but once begun it makes a huge impact on reducing chronic and excessive tiredness.
2. Strength Training Reduces Muscle Loss
Another really important benefit of strength training for cancer patients is the reduction and prevention of muscle loss. It is not uncommon for mesothelioma and other cancer patients to experience muscle loss. Even younger patients will lose muscle from the cancer and its treatments. Being active, and especially engaging in strength training activities, reduces muscle loss, prevents it, and can even build up muscle mass.
3. Building Muscle Improves Mobility, Activity, and Quality of Life
Cancer patients often experience a lot of pain, which can seriously impact mobility and overall quality of life. Treatments for cancer, like surgery, can further limit mobility. Losing muscle mass only worsens mobility further. With impaired mobility it becomes more challenging to leave the house and to engage in the kinds of activities a person previously enjoyed. Strength training can help by improving muscle mass, increasing flexibility, reducing fatigue, and making it easier to get out and about to enjoy life and being around other people.
4. Having More Muscle Mass Stimulates Appetite
Strength training and other forms of physical activity are great for promoting appetite. Cancer patients often lose their appetites, usually as a side effect of the nausea and changes to taste and smell caused by chemotherapy. It is important for patients to eat well and to get adequate nutrition so their bodies can heal, but when appetite is gone this is very difficult. Engaging in strength exercises stimulates the appetite and helps cancer patients feel like eating more.
5. Being Active Relieves Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
Living with cancer can cause mental health consequences as well as physical complications. If you have cancer you may struggle with stress, or even clinical anxiety or depression. Your doctor can guide you through coping with these and getting professional help if needed, but strength training can help too. Exercise is a proven mood booster, but it also helps by giving you a new purpose, relieving your fatigue, giving you a new challenge to focus on, and providing you with social interactions.
Working with a Trainer or Physical Therapist
No cancer patient should begin any kind of strength training without first talking to his medical team. If you are thinking of getting started with an exercise program, your doctor needs to know. Your doctor can tell you if there is a good reason not to start yet or to impose specific limitations on your workout.
Talking to your doctor is important, but so is working with a professional. Don’t try to start a routine on your own, without guidance. A physical therapist or a trainer who has worked with cancer patients before will be able to design a routine for you that takes your limitations into consideration. Even healthy people can get injured doing strength training without guidance for form and other factors.
Strength training is recommended for most cancer patients. Even elderly patients can benefit from light strength work. In a few cases a patient may be too sick to get any activity, but for most people a little bit of exercise provides a huge range of significant benefits. Building muscle mass, improving appetite, reducing stress and fatigue, and enjoying a better quality of life are all possible with an individualized and professionally-guided strength training routine.