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January 18, 2018

Exercise: The 5-hour Standard

“I’m too tired.”

“It’s not fun.”

“I don’t have the time.”

“My legs look ugly in gym shorts.”

“The weather’s bad.”

You’ve heard them. We’ve all used them. They are excuses for people who don’t want to exercise. But even the very best of integrated cancer care will not be maximized without regular exercise. Think of it as a mandatory requirement.

In 2005, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study on physical activity and survival after a cancer diagnosis. The study found that exercising just one hour per week could lower the risk of recurrence by approximately 20 percent. But the risk of recurrence was reduced by 50 percent when the exercise time was increased to three to five hours per week.

The benefits of exercise before, during, and after cancer treatment are now appearing frequently in medical research. When Cancer Recovery Foundation International started our work over a quarter-century ago, we were the first organization to document the link between exercise and recovery. At that time, we did not clearly understand how much exercise and what type. Today, the answers are much clearer. And the answer: survivors make daily exercise a part of life.

Cancer and its treatments cause significant changes in the body, including fatigue, muscle weakness, and loss of flexibility, which can result in normal daily activities becoming challenging. Movement counters these changes and becomes a key aspect of recovery and healing. Something as simple as gentle range of motion exercises following surgery will enhance energy, increase flexibility, improve mood, and often produce an overall feeling of greater well-being.

Mild exercise such as a brisk walk, house-cleaning, or gardening improves quality of life, sleep, and appetite. Moderate exercise also reduces the risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, anxiety, and depression.

Today, Cancer Recovery Foundation International has set the aerobic standard for minimum exercise at twenty to forty minutes three to five times per week. In 2006, a study found this level to be safe for cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. From our survivor interviews, we know that only 30 percent of cancer patients meet that standard. We encourage you to join that select group. We are further encouraging you to work up to and maintain the high end of the standard, five hours per week.

You owe it to yourself to schedule a walk each and every day. Or perhaps you prefer gentle yoga or qigong, both of which combine relaxation and exercise. Exercise out-of-doors whenever possible. The fresh air and the exposure to sunlight are sources of health on their own.

The physiology of regular moderate exercise facilitates the flow of lymphatic fluid. This means our immune system can deal more effectively with the many toxins, bacteria, and abnormal cells. Unlike the circulatory system, which relies on the heart to pump the blood, the lymphatic system has no pump. Instead, lymph function relies on contraction of our muscles during our activities of daily living and exercise to move lymphatic fluid through the system.

Moderate exercise also helps minimize lymphedema in cancer patients. This is the often painful fluid buildup many patients experience post-surgery and especially following removal of lymphnodes. Researchers examined the association between lymphedema and exercise and found that upper body weight training did not increase the risk of lymphedema—it reduced the risk.  It is reasonable to conclude that cancer patients can and should engage in moderate upper body resistance training. In addition to exercise, and to support maximum lymph function, drinking at least eight glasses of water per day helps provide the needed hydration that optimizes lymphatic volume and fluid.

Take these exercise guidelines very seriously. The costs of failing to exercise are simply too great. Start slow. Find the right routine. Do something every day—no excuses.  Just do it! Make daily exercise a central part of your life. Soon it will become more than a requirement, it will become a pleasure. And then you will know you are truly on the path to health and healing.

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