5 exercise truths for cancer survivors

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By Brittany Cordeiro


Cancer survivors: If you're feeling a little sluggish, it's better to get active than hit the couch. Exercise curbs fatigue, reduces stress, strengthens your immune system and can help prevent weight gain.

Regular exercise also reduces your risks of diabetes and heart disease, and for survivors of certain types of cancers, it can reduce their risk of recurrence and death from their disease.  


For these reasons, the American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors return to normal daily activities as soon as possible after their cancer diagnosis, working their way up to 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.


If you're ready to get moving, take note. There are a lot of white lies floating around about the do's and don'ts of exercise.


So, we asked MD Anderson senior exercise physiologist Carol Harrison to give us the truths about exercise to help you stay in fighting shape.  


Exercise smarter, not longer

"How you work out matters more than spending hours in the gym," Harrison says.


To get the most out of your workout, strength train before you do aerobic exercises. This order matches the order your body burns its fuel -- carbohydrates first, fat second. And carbohydrates are the best fuel for short-term and intense exercises, like lifting weights, while fat is the best fuel for aerobic exercises.

Harrison recommends that cancer survivors try to do strength building exercises two to three days each week. You can do aerobic activities every day. 

Exercise can decrease appetite

You may think that if you exercise, you're going to be hungrier. But a good, strong workout can actually decrease your appetite, Harrison says. Several studies also show that exercise improves appetite control and makes hunger more closely match actual calorie needs.


Controlling your calorie intake can help you maintain a healthy weight, which can help protect your body from diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer recurrence.


Slow-burn during exercise is good, sharp pain isn't

Exercise shouldn't hurt while you're doing it, but you should feel some level of discomfort.  "You should feel a slow burn during your workout," Harrison says. "When you stop the activity, that burn should go away."


If you feel a sudden onset of sharp pain, or any persistent pain, consult your doctor.

Women should lift heavy weights

"There is nothing wrong with a woman pushing up to 200 pounds on a leg press if she can do it," Harrison says. 

Lifting weights tones and shapes the body, giving you that fit appearance. It does not make you look like a bodybuilder. Women have low levels of testosterone so that don't naturally build massive muscles, Harrison says.


Lifting weights can help prevent muscle loss, build bone density and increase the rate at which your body burns calories to keep you at a healthy weight.


Stretch after exercising

It is more effective to stretch after exercise when your muscles and joints are warm. "Stretching before has little to no benefit," Harrison says. Stretching after can improve performance and flexibility, and helps maintain a healthy range of motion in joints.


Stretching also can reduce stress, decrease muscle tension, and improve your circulation and posture.

Remember, exercise is one of the best methods to help you recover from and fight off cancer. Whether it's working in your garden or running, what's important is to find an activity that you enjoy doing. That way, you'll get the recommended amount of exercise you need each week to stay healthy. 

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