The Role of Exercise in a Cancer Patient’s Life Amid COVID-19

As cancer patients cope with COVID-19, social distancing, postponed doctor’s appointments or cancer treatments, and other stressful changes in life, immune-compromised individuals need the physical and mental health benefits of exercise more than ever. Although engaging in any physical activity seems onerous during these challenging times, public health officials claim that staying active—while undoubtedly necessary even under normal circumstances—is essential to one’s overall well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In light of National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, National Senior Health Fitness Day (May 27th), and Mental Health Month—here’s why cancer patients should continue or begin exercising amidst the “new normal,” and how they can workout safely during coronavirus closures.

How does COVID-19 affect exercise routines?

COVID-19 closures of gyms, fitness studios, community pools, parks, and other public places are resulting in reduced opportunities for exercise, particularly for cancer patients and survivors who prefer to stretch their muscles and regain strength outdoors. Social distancing may further affect patients’ ability to workout since outdoor physical activity in some cities is not an option due to shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders.

What are the other COVID-19 concerns that may affect mental and physical health?

Coronavirus-related concerns may play a relatively large role in changing dietary habits, which can lead to higher calorie consumption and unhealthy weight gain. Skipping nutritious fruits and vegetables in favor of calorific and non-perishable consumables, as well as experiencing financial difficulties, can urge some cancer patients and survivors to choose inexpensive, ultra-processed food options. Keep in mind, however, that eating processed foods may raise cancer risks and recurrence rates. Since cancer patients are spending more time at home, constant snacking and unhealthy eating (if they have the appetite) can become difficult to resist, too.

In addition, many adults—whether cancer patients or not—are coping with anxiety, fear, stress, sadness, and other negative emotions that can lead to binge-eating and a lack of motivation to exercise. These two factors can cause obesity down the road, which is another possible cause of cancer and recurrence.

To help everyone survive the coronavirus lockdown with their sanity intact, New Hope Unlimited wrote 7 Quarantine Survival Tips for Your Mental Health. If you are among the millions of people experiencing mental health decline during this period of quarantine and self-isolation, then we hope that reading this article can help you find effective ways to cope.

What is the importance of exercise amid a pandemic?

Regular exercise is crucial for everyone regardless if they are immune-compromised or generally healthy. Here are the top reasons to exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Engaging in physical activities is especially beneficial for older adults and individuals with health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or arthritis. Moreover, aside from the aforementioned, WebMD cites that a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise at least five days a week can help improve flexibility, mobility, strength, balance, heart health, energy levels, and overall well-being.

How can a cancer patient stay active during COVID-19 closures?

The gym being closed is not an excuse to skip exercising. There are countless ways to workout, even when people need to stay indoors and practice social distancing.

A quick disclaimer: For cancer patients, survivors, and individuals with chronic health issues, please consult your physicians and treatment providers before starting any new home exercise regimen.

Here’s how cancer patients, survivors, and everyone else can get in shape, improve their mental health, and strengthen immunity against COVID-19:

  • Flexibility exercises. “Stretching is important to keep moving, to maintain mobility,” says Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society. If a patient is not ready for more vigorous exercise routines, then they should at least try to stay flexible through stretching.
  • Aerobic exercises. Swimming in an at-home pool, brisk walking or running on a treadmill, and other aerobic exercises can help burn calories and shed excess pounds. These exercises can build cardiovascular fitness as well, which reduces the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
  • Resistance training. Isometric exercises and lifting weights are effective methods for building muscle. Undergoing cancer treatment can cause some people to lose muscle, but gain fat. Therefore, for cancer patients with a high fat-to-lean mass ratio, “resistance training can be especially helpful,” says Doyle.

Everyone can start reaping the benefits of exercise by trying these additional suggestions at home:

  • Follow an exercise video. Whether a cancer patient enjoys pilates, dancing, or other workouts, a video that they can follow along to—complete with a virtual trainer—is sure to exist on YouTube or another platform on the internet. Click the links below for examples of workout videos for cancer patients and survivors:
  • Tackle muscle-building and calorie-burning chores. Household chores such as cleaning out the attic, mowing the lawn, and mopping the floor provide excellent opportunities to strengthen muscles and burn calories. In addition to the sense of fulfillment, they will feel after a workout, completing a household task may yield even more feel-good benefits.
  • Stop saying “I don’t feel like it” and consider exercise as an essential part of life. “Stop waiting for or looking for a ‘feeling’ of motivation,” said Tom Nikkola, vice president of Nutrition and Virtual Training at Life Time. “Like many other feelings, being motivated is something that comes and goes. Exercise needs to be a non-negotiable if we want to stick with it. That’s especially the case right now for those of us sheltering in place. We’re surrounded by the comforts of home, and if exercise isn’t a non-negotiable, we will talk ourselves out of it.” Cancer patients can set exercise goals, such as following a workout video at least three days a week to kickstart their quarantine fitness journey and then make a plan to work toward achieving it.

The bottom line: Following a new fitness routine may take some effort, but ultimately, regular exercise is beneficial and can help cancer patients, survivors, and everyone else improves their well-being during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The cancer care team at New Hope Unlimited specializes in a combination of conventional and holistic cancer therapies. If you are searching for less harmful yet effective alternatives to high-dose chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other conventional methods, contact us. Our cancer treatment specialists look forward to helping you broaden your options.

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