Strength training and cardio during chemotherapy

Ten years ago doctors told cancer patients that they should take it easy and not take too much exercise. After all, chronic fatigue and nausea are a big problem among cancer sufferers. Nowadays, however, doctors are telling cancer patients that they should keep moving. Danish researchers even got patients to go to the gym in their periods of chemotherapy, and the results were encouraging. The patients felt more energetic and became fitter and stronger.

You’re probably already familiar with scientists like Edward Giovannucci, the epidemiologist who says that physical exercise should be standard treatment for cancer. Doctors that get patients who have completed chemotherapy or radiation treatment to train in a gym to speed up recovery and return to work are no longer a novelty. But the idea that cancer patients who are actually undergoing chemotherapy (read still attached to a drip) should be doing weight training might take a little getting used to.

Nevertheless this approach is effective: we now know officially. In August 2012, researchers at the University of New Mexico published the biggest review study ever of the effect of movement during treatment for cancer. [Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Aug 15;8:CD008465.]

The researchers compiled the results from 56 trials and reanalysed them. Their conclusion? Exercise in the form of cycling, weight training, yoga or qigong improves quality of life, reduces fatigue and improves physical and social functioning. The exertion needs to be a little intensive: light training works, but moderately intensive training works better.

In 2006 Danish researchers at the University of Copenhagen published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports the results of a study in which they had done experiments with a group of patients being treated for intestinal cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and testicular cancer. The Danes got their test subjects to train for an hour and a half three times a week in a gym. The patients did cardio training and worked their largest muscle groups on resistance machines.

Although doctors had pumped the subjects’ bodies full of cell-killing cytostatic drugs and exposed them to radioactive radiation, these people became fitter and stronger. Their oxygen uptake capacity increased, as did the maximal strength they were able to develop on the leg press, the chest press and the lat-pulldown.

Chemotherapy and radiation can have side effects such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, tingling as a result of nerve damage, physical fatigue, mental fatigue, muscular pain, joint and pain and other forms of pain. The exercise programme had a positive effect on ten of the twelve side effects. [Eur J Oncol Nurs. 2006 Sep;10(4):247-62.]