New Updated Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors

In the past, recommendations for exercise during cancer treatment and survivorship were based on exercise guidelines for the general public, which is 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity. As of November 2019, the American College of Sports Medicine released updated guidelines that take into account the latest research on exercise and cancer outcomes and are more tailored to people with cancer.

Following a review of the research conducted by over 40 international experts in the field through the University of British Columbia, exercise recommendations for people with cancer have been updated to:

  • Moderate to intense aerobic exercise at least 3 times per week for at least 30 minutes each session
  • Resistance training at least 2 times per week, consisting of at least 2 sets of 8-15 repetitions at 60% of max capacity

These guidelines are based on research findings that show:

  • All types of regular exercise lower the risk of developing breast, colon, endometrial, kidney, bladder, esophagus and stomach cancers
  • Incorporating regular exercise increases rates of survival in breast, colon and prostate cancers
  • Exercise during and after cancer treatment improves quality of life measures including: fatigue, anxiety, depression, and physical function

Resistance training in particular is important because it:

  • Increases muscle mass which in turn increases basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories you burn at rest) and can lead to a decrease in body fat mass
  • Protects against bone density loss and reduces long term risk of bone fracture
  • Increases strength and physical functioning, which can improve quality of life and feelings of wellbeing   

What do these changes mean for people with cancer? Continue doing aerobic/cardiovascular exercise regularly, where you are elevating your heartrate and breathing for about 30 minutes each session. This could be walking, cycling, intervals, hiking, swimming, dancing, jogging or other low to high-impact activities that you enjoy. The real change is in adding resistance (also called weight or strength) training, where you are using body weight or added weights in order to stress your muscles, causing them to adapt and get stronger. For beginners, this means starting out using body weight to do push-ups, lunges, squats, pull-ups, planks, etc. However, as your muscles adapt, you will need to add additional weight. There are good online resources for free workouts as well as smartphone fitness apps to help guide beginners and provide some ideas. Once you are adding additional weight, 8-15 repetitions at 60% of max capacity feels challenging by the last couple of repetitions. Lastly, if you have recently had a surgery or an invasive procedure, please check with your doctor before beginning any resistance training, to make sure it is safe to do so.   

Christina Holmquist

CCNM Integrative Cancer Centre intern

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