As more and more studies are showing, exercise is an entirely natural and harm-free way to effectively support cancer treatment and recovery. At our major annual seminar we were fortunate to hear from two experts, Ted Poulter and Barbara Gallani, who offered practical advice on how to go about improving health with physical activity.
Ted is a senior adviser for Macmillan and having been through cancer treatment himself, offered a very personal understanding and overview of the importance of physical activity for recovery. Ted began by admitting it was a lot easier to preach than to practice but by the end of his talk it was clear that this was an effort worth making. Studies by the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) shows that exercise has no adverse effects and can improve health in many areas including aerobic capacity, muscular strength, reducing fatigue, slowing disease progression and contributing to protection from recurrence. Benefits have been studied in breast, colorectal, prostate and haematological cancer (which account for 50% of cancers in the UK) and particularly in breast cancer.
Ted outlined the recommendations given by the Department of Health and offered a range of ideas how these can be integrated into everyday life. It is proposed that 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity and two sessions of strength training (as well as balance exercises if necessary) is enough exercise each week to positively benefit health. The Department of Health advises against sedentary behaviour, which is defined at sitting down for more than thirty minutes. This prompted Ted into action with the realisation that we had all been sitting down for a long time. He asked the audience to stand, march on the spot, roll shoulders, breathe deeply and sit back down. Starting to introduce more physical activity into everyday life is as easy as that!
Ted went on to outline four areas for people to focus on: flexibility; cardiovascular; strength; and balance. For flexibility he suggested doing gentle stretches every day, two to three times if possible in bursts of a few minutes. Thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise was recommended between five and seven times a weeks, with enough intensity to be conscious of breath without feeling breathless. Going out walking is the easiest way to integrate this into everyday life but cycling, swimming (not recommended for patients undergoing radiotherapy because of skin irritation) and dancing are other options, depending on what you enjoy. Of course the more you enjoy an exercise the more likely you are to do it. Ted suggested building up distance rather than pace, which could easily be measured using a step counter.
Strength training was an element of physical activity that Ted presented as being extremely underrated. Especially following surgery, rebuilding muscle strength is key to making a good recovery. As well as weight lifting (which it may be necessary to consult with a professional) many household tasks can help improve strength from vacuuming, to bed making, to DIY, to gardening, always remembering to use a good lifting technique. Simple exercises can be
carried out at home using small dumb bells or household items such as cans of food or bottles filled with sand. The exercises should achieve a sense of muscle fatigue after eight to twelve repetitions. Two to three sessions of strength training a week can make a huge difference, but remember to take a day’s rest between each one. This can be combined with balance exercises for example tai chi positions or walking an imaginary tightrope.
A fantastic way to address strength, balance and flexibility all at once is to take up the practice of yoga. Barbara Gallani spoke about the benefits of yoga in all these areas and explained how the gains go well beyond this. She described yoga as a philosophy of life, a way of bringing harmony between body and mind. Noticeable improvements in well-being include better sleeping patterns, appetite and energy levels as well as reduced stress and tension. Barbara explained how yoga can help you take charge of your thoughts when everything around you might be in chaos, strengthening you mentally and emotionally as well as physically.
As well as being an experienced yoga teacher, Barbara is also a particle physicist and was keen to emphasise the importance of this scientific background in her work. Having specialised for many years in working with cancer patients she has drawn together much evidence that points to yoga, specifically of all exercise, to be an effective complementary therapy for cancer. Yoga can be carried out in a gentle and progressive fashion which makes it ideal when addressing limitation of movement and rehabilitation of any kind. A systematic review by Support Cancer Care showed there was 'moderate to good evidence' that yoga was beneficial for cancer patients, however more research is required.
Clinical studies reveal instances where yoga has been seen to improve recovery, not only showing drastic improvements in well-being but also reductions in inflammation. Physically yoga does many incredible things for the body, but for cancer patients, and in particular breast cancer patients, the improvement of lymphatic flow, encouragement of thoracic emptying and improvement of the stability and function of the girdle and thoracic spine are particularly relevant. Re-aligning a body after surgery is another major way yoga can contribute to recovery, although all incisions must be healed before undertaking any physical activity.
Ted and Barbara provided an extensive overview of the importance of exercise for people with cancer. Physical activity is a simple and harm-free way to improve well-being; aid recovery, build strength and most importantly allow one to be fit enough to continue doing the things that give enjoyment. Yoga especially has been seen to be a greatly beneficial aid for cancer patients at any stage of recovery and can make a huge contribution to healing. Finding an exercise you enjoy and are willing to commit to or simply increasing physical activity in your everyday life could have a great impact on your recovery, so whether it is a walk in the park, a yoga session or choosing to take the stairs getting moving will only lead to better places.