The importance of exercise for people with an upper gastrointestinal (GI) cancer
Exercise during and after cancer treatment has been shown to improve physical and emotional wellbeing and improve your ability to cope with the side effects of treatment.
On this page:
> How much exercise should you do?
> Forms of gentle exercise
> Where to exercise
> Taking care of yourself
> Why is exercise important?
> Choosing exercise that works for you
> Do I need to take precautions?
> Where can I find more information?
When you are less active your muscle strength and fitness decrease. A physiotherapist or exercise physiologist experienced in cancer care is the best professional to assist you to develop a program designed specifically for you.
How much exercise should you be doing?
EXercise MEDicine is a program for people with cancer. The recommended amounts of exercise to achieve the greatest benefits are:
- 20 to 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise (or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week) – Do activities you like: walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling, and
- 2-3 sessions of weight training or muscle strengthening
Some days you may not feel up to exercising, but you may be able to manage some gardening, walking a little way or doing some stretches while you are sitting or lying down.
Doing any amount of exercise is better than not being active at all.
“I love running because it clears me, I don’t think ever about the illness or anything when I’m running. And when I exercise now I actually feel great again, I function really, really well.”
Natalie, 46yrs with pancreatic cancer
The following video provides insight from clinicians and patients on the importance of keeping active when living with cancer. This video was produced by WCMICS (Western & Central Melbourne Integrated Cancer Service) with the support of Pancare Foundation and NeuroEndocrine Cancer Australia, to enable patients living with cancer improve their quality of life.
Forms of gentle exercise
There are many forms of gentle exercise that can be incorporated into your day to day life.
You may have experienced and enjoyed gentle exercise. Trust yourself and your instinct. Start slowly with exercise and assess how you feel afterwards. You are the best judge of your body – if you feel you are gaining some benefits you might want to do these gentle exercises weekly or daily. Many people and cultures start their day with a short exercise practice.
Tai Chi, Qi Gong
The ancient Chinese practices of tai chi and qi gong combine slow, deliberate movements, meditation, and breathing exercises. They can also help restore your energy, called chi or qi (pronounced “chee”).
Yoga originated in ancient India. Yoga is a spiritual practice which includes breath control, meditation, and specific body postures. Yoga is widely practised for health and relaxation.
There are many types of yoga schools and practices. Hatha yoga is a gentle practice. If you are new to yoga, hatha yoga is a great starting point to practicing yoga.
Where to exercise
The place that you do your exercise can be important, a quiet room, in the garden, in a pool, with music. You might like exercising alone or in a group. The environment you are in can contribute to feelings of calm and wellbeing.
Taking care of yourself
If you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with cancer, or if you are undergoing treatment, then you understand just how important it is to take good care of yourself.
Several studies have focused on the best ways to take care of yourself post-diagnosis, including diet and group therapy sessions. One of the best known methods of self-care is through regular physical exercise.[¹]
Moderate levels of exercise post-diagnosis or during treatment have been shown to elicit many benefits, including reduced fatigue, which is a major physical and mental challenge for patients undergoing treatment.
Why is exercise important?
Though a wealth of research regarding exercise and cancer focuses on cancer prevention, recent studies have been geared toward understanding the effectiveness of physical activity for those living with cancer. Exercise has been linked to improvements in four key challenges that patients living with cancer regularly face:
Cancer-related fatigue is one of the most common and debilitating side effects of treatment. Although it may not feel like it at the time, exercise has been demonstrated as the most effective treatment for cancer-related fatigue. Studies indicate that those who engage in regular exercise experience 40% to 50% less fatigue over the course of their treatment.
Regular exercise not only increases muscle strength, but also helps improve joint flexibility and overall conditioning, which may be impaired in the wake of surgery or other related therapies. Additionally, regular physical activity has been linked to improved overall cardiovascular fitness, strength, balance and mobility.
Exercise has been proven to help control weight – a critical factor in any cancer treatment. It is important to nourish your body while remaining as active as possible during treatment.
Participating in regular physical activity can also lead to improved mental wellness among cancer patients. By elevating mood, exercise offers patients an outlet for those battling feelings of anxiety and/or depression, helping to maintain a higher level of mental wellness.
Exercise after a cancer diagnosis has been linked to improved self-esteem, stronger social skills, greater feelings of independence and an overall greater quality of life, all of which can be invaluable to those undergoing treatment.
Choosing exercise that works for you
The best kind of exercise is one that you enjoy, feel comfortable with and cover all components of fitness – cardiovascular, strength, balance and flexibility.
You may prefer to seek out group exercise or choose an activity that allows you to stay close to home. Activities like walking, jogging, cycling or swimming are ways that you can engage in physical activity close to home, without the added costs of travel or programs.
Keep in mind that exercise needs to be compatible with your body and your treatment program and that each individual experience is different. Consider the following when choosing what kind of exercise may suit you best:
- the stage and type of cancer you have been diagnosed with
- the intensity of your cancer treatment
- your overall stamina, strength and fitness levels.
An accredited exercise physiologist who is experienced in cancer care can safely prescribe appropriate exercises for you while considering your current treatment, side effects and other health or joint issues you may have.
Do I need to take precautions?
Although the benefits of exercise during and after cancer treatment therapies are numerous, it is equally important to take precautions to protect your overall health and welfare. Depending on your diagnosis or treatment program, the following factors should be considered when starting an exercise program:
- Check the COVID-19 regulations relating to exercising in your area. In some locations, gyms may be closed, but outdoor exercise may be permissible.
- Check that your blood levels are within a safe range. If your blood cells are low, it may cause fatigue and you should only exercise at a very low level. Additionally, if you have low white blood cell counts, or prescribed medications that affect the body’s ability to fight infection, you should avoid public gyms or other public venues.
- Radiation treatment — those undergoing radiation therapy should avoid exposing skin in and around the treatment area to certain elements, like chlorine in swimming pools.
- Bleeding — those taking blood thinners can experience issues with bleeding and should avoid situations that risk falls or other injury. Indicators like swelling, dizziness, pain or blurred vision should prompt a call to your primary care doctor or oncologist.
- Catheters or feeding tubes — it is important to avoid bodies of water, like lakes, pools, the ocean or other elements that could cause severe infection. It is also important to avoid too much physical activity in the area where the catheter or tube is located, in order to avoid dislodging it.
- Loss of muscle mass and strength. Go easy on yourself and build up to gradually.
- Surgery – allow your adequate time to heal after surgery, your surgeon will guide this.
Any symptoms that cause concern, such as shortness of breath, swollen ankles, unexplained weight gain, unrelieved nausea or vomiting, or continuous pain should halt all exercise until you can consult with your doctor.
Where can I find more information?
- If you are looking for more information regarding how physical therapies or exercise programs may affect your cancer treatment, please contact Pancare’s PanSupport Team on 1300 881 698
- To find an accredited exercise physiologist in your area, go to https://www.essa.org.au/find-aep, type in your postcode, click ‘Cancer’ under specialty and click search.
The information contained in this article is intended for informational purposes only. Pancare does not recommend engaging in any exercise program without consulting your general practitioner, oncologist or the remainder of your cancer care team.