The healing power of exercise
Before Gabriela Dow’s cancer diagnosis, her schedule, which involved juggling professional commitments with motherhood, left little time for working out. But when her oncologist recommended that she exercise during treatment, she started walking. “I learned early on that moving made me feel so much better, especially before the tiredness really set in,” says Dow.
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Not only does exercise make people feel better, fitness is correlated with mortality, says Dr. Arash Asher, director of Cancer Survivorship and Rehabilitation at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “There have been oodles of studies that show exercise is good for breast cancer patients. It reduces fatigue, it’s good for the bones and it decreases anxiety. But there also seems to be a much lower recurrence rate for people who get moderate amounts of exercise per week.”
Research shows that exercise also reduces recurrence rates of other types of cancer, including colorectal, prostate and ovarian cancers. The protective benefit may be manifold: physical activity reduces inflammatory chemicals, body fat and insulin sensitivity, all of which may fuel cancer progression and recurrence.
The caveat, says Asher, is that while moderate exercise is beneficial, intense exercise may actually suppress immunity in the short term. “The answer is that it needs to be tailored for each person.”
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Cancer rehab may also include “prehabilitation”: targeted exercises designed to optimize a treatment’s outcome that patients can do before the treatment begins. For example, preoperative lung cancer patients may do breathing exercises, such as blowing up balloons, prostrate cancer patients may do pelvic floor exercises and neck cancer patients may do swallowing exercises.