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Cancer And Exercise

Cancer and Exercise

Cancer and Exercise

In the 1950’s, doctors told heart attack patients to stay in bed for three weeks.  The standard post surgery advice was long periods of rest and activity avoidance.  My mother recalls her doctor telling her to rest in bed for five days after the birth of each of her five children.  She knew his advice was wrong and completely impossible for a mother of five.  During my physical therapy work in the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was very common for patients with back and neck pain to be instructed by their doctor to stay in bed for a week.  All of this medical instruction has been proven to be more harmful than helpful.  The best course of action is to return to a progressive program of exercise as soon as possible.  The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has just released their exercise guidelines for cancer prevention and treatment recovery.  Please take the time to review the information posted on  These are the big messages everyone needs to hear.

Exercise is a cancer preventative.  It lowers the risk for seven common types of cancer.  One of the reasons many types of cancer have increased in the USA is due to obesity and a lack of fitness.

Fatigue and poor tolerance of activity are common side effects of cancer treatment.  Physical therapists have known for years that strength training improves both of these debilitating side effects.  This is backed up in the ACSM guidelines.  Clinical experience often outpaces research.

Post surgery many cancer patients are left with a problem called lymphedema.  Very often, they have been warned that exercise will cause the swelling in their arm or hand to worsen.  The ACSM guidelines explain that exercise does not exacerbate lymphedema and can help resolve this problem.

Emotional well being is dramatically improved in cancer patients that participate in exercise programs.  Is it brain chemistry, social interaction, resolution of fears in regards to activity… probably all of these things.  We just know that one of the most debilitating side effects of cancer is the toll it takes on mental health.  The ACSM research has demonstrated that exercise helps with this problem.

Once again, the research shows that activity is far better than rest.  If the benefits of exercise could be packaged into a pill, it would be the most prescribed medication of all time.

Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS

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