Cancer Exercise: What Does it Mean?

Cancer Exercise: What Does it Mean?

Marian Barnick

Marian Barnick

Marian Barnick is a Registered Kinesiologist and Cancer Movement Therapist teaching cancer patients how to move better and feel better.

What Does Exercise Really Mean to Cancer Patients?

I saw a patient yesterday who was in a lot of pain.  He told me when he feels like this he stops his exercise program.  That made me lean in a bit more and ask some questions.  We sat and chatted for a while and I was able to discover what he really meant.  When he’s in a lot of pain he stops his strengthening exercises – he was still doing all of his stretches as well as his walking.  In fact, he said when he’s in a lot of pain he actually does MORE stretching.  This type of exercise actually helps decrease his pain, helps him to focus on his breathing, and gets him into a more relaxed state.  What he doesn’t do when he feels a lot of pain, is his strengthening program.  

What is Exercise?

So this made me wonder what we consider to be exercise.  Is stretching exercise?  Is yoga exercise?  And is there a difference between ‘physical activity’ and exercise?  We hear the statement all the time – we need to be more physically active.  What’s that mean?

In order to make sure I got the wording just right, I pulled out my latest addition of the ACSM Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription.  Most people in sports physiology and Kinesiology would agree that the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) Guidelines is like a Bible to exercise prescription.

Physical activity and exercise are not actually the same thing.  When we talk about physical activity, we’re talking about the baseline stuff – any movement of the body that’s made by using our muscles and requires substantial energy over our resting state.  Exercise is a type of physical activity but it has rules, repetitive body movements, and we exercise to improve or maintain our physical fitness. 

Since that’s maybe a little hard to digest (and boring) think about it this way.  If you were running up the stairs because your son or daughter fell and hurt themselves – that would be a physical activity.  If you’re on the elliptical machine – it’s exercise –  something you’re doing to help with heart health and maybe some fat burning. 

There are lots of health related components of physical fitness such as keeping our heart healthy, keeping a good balance between our fat and muscle, being strong enough for our daily activities, being flexible enough to complete our required AND enjoyable daily activities.

Exercise and Cancer

So let’s regroup and look at our wording, and see how this relates to those who have been diagnosed with cancer. 

As a cancer patient, how do YOU look at exercise?  Is it something so daunting, like a marathon, that you can’t even get started?  Or can you look at climbing the stairs as exercise, loading the dishwasher, walking at the mall?   Do these activities meet the criteria of improving or maintaining our physical fitness?  You bet they do! 

Although each and every person has their own level of physical fitness, these activities are definitely exercise as there are variations that can suit each individual depending on where you’re at on the fitness ladder.  You can change how quickly you walk, how many times and how quickly you climb the stairs, how often you bend and reach into the dishwasher.  These variations change the intensity of the activity and therefore, how hard you’re working.

What we really need to do is look at an activity – or a movement – and say, “Does this help me?”  Because that’s what we’re really looking for.  Something to help you on the road to better health and better quality of life.  So don’t be scared of exercise as it’s probably something you’re doing almost every day. 

The type of exercise doesn’t matter, as long as you’re safe.  What’s important is to know is:

  • what works for you
  • when to progress your activity level to have a positive impact on your fitness
  • that you’re keeping the goal of improving your quality of life
  • what the signals are to slow down
  • when to take a break

Pain told my patient to slow down his activity level.  Stop to listen – your symptoms will ‘talk’ to you too.

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