By Rob Wise
Can you believe it’s almost been a year since we started to learn and hear about Covid-19? As we moved into February and crept into March, it would only be a few more weeks until most of the world would go on a complete lockdown. Everything started to shut down, impacting everyone’s lives and most importantly everyone’s health! I understand first hand the stress of not knowing what to expect as it seemed like the lockdown would never end and we’d be stuck inside for the foreseeable future. Being stuck inside, many people would fall victim to the dreaded Covid-15, or what would be known as the expression of rapid weight gain in the short amount of time. Albeit an arbitrary number, 15 would lend towards a meaning of around 15 pounds, which throughout the shutdown, many people had gained significantly more than that!
Battling a cancer diagnosis and living through a pandemic can be an absolutely frightening experience as you may be dealing with a suppressed immune system from chemo, or may have difficulty even scheduling doctors appointments because of all the restrictions. The dreaded Covid-19 is yet another stress on your mind while going through all the other stressors of a cancer diagnosis.
But let’s step back and think of the ramifications of physical inactivity and poor nutrition while battling cancer. For example, if you’re someone who is battling breast cancer and you’re hormone receptor positive you’ll have to be cognizant of foods and chemicals you ingest which might increase hormone production, and sometimes this requires medications that prevent your body from even manufacturing these hormones. Beyond the side effects of the medication, gaining body fat puts you at a huge disadvantage, which is that body fat secretes aromasin, which is needed in the biosynthesis of estrogen, which means when you gain body fat, you produce more estrogen! There is a story like this for every cancer.
You might be thinking, “I already knew this, I know I need to be more physically active!”. However, I hear a follow-up comment such as “I’m not going to any gym where I’ll get Covid” or “If I stress my body out physically while fighting my cancer, I am more likely to get Covid!”
I understand the fear, but what we know now after about a year into this pandemic that those who are physically active and eat a balanced diet are the LOWEST risk group for getting Covid-19, and those what have underlying health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, pulmonary disorders are more at risk. Yes, having cancer does put you in a higher risk category, as does age, gender and even some ethnicities are being observed as higher risk, but those are risk factors that you cannot control. Modifiable risk factors are the ones that are in our control. This means if you’re at risk for diabetes, you need to watch your sugar intake, if you have high blood pressure, reduce your salt intake and if you have a pulmonary disorder you need to make sure you stop smoking and avoid being around tobacco products.
Plus, if you have been an avid follower of Maple Tree you know there is overwhelming evidence that exercise is truly medicine! It will help mitigate side effects of treatment and improve everything from pain to improving your sleep quality. But where to start? Below I have listed my best tips for staying active and healthy while battling cancer in the age of Covid.
- Start slow. At Maple Tree are programming is all about meeting the patient where they are at, wether in treatment or not, a reduced intensity is key to staying healthy.This controls the stress on the immune system while delivering the benefits of the exercise you chose. If you’re in treatment consider keeping a very close eye on your heart rate. This is not the time to set records with intensity and you should not be dripping buckets of sweat. A good pace to start would allow you to complete a full breath, maintain a normal conversation, and feel like you can go on for hours if you had too. After treatment, or if no treatment then start to pick up the intensity. You’ll be breathing just a little bit harder but can still hold a conversation, while the pace may feel comfortable you do notice it may start to feel a little more challenging.
- Set tangible, short range goals- Current recommendations for cardiovascular health are 150 minutes a week of moderate intense exercise, with half of that being vigorous/intense activity. If we go back to number 1, starting slow, you’ll see that overstressing the body while battling cancer or going through treatment could increase your risk of secondary infections including Covid-19. So my recommendations are to start with 30 minutes of daily cardiovascular exercise, such as walking outside/inside, 5 days per week. Struggling with that? Then try 10 minutes, 3 times a day for 5 days a week, or if that is still too much, then go for 20 minutes daily of cardiovascular exercise. Strength training should be between 1-2 times a week, with light resistance or body weight training. I recommend doing a whole body routine for 20-30 minutes a day, 2 days a week. Flexibility training is something you can do daily, wether it’s light stretching before bed, or practicing yoga, you’ll find you’ll be more relaxed and less stressed about your daily worries. Setting goals that are are able to be met daily, weekly, monthly or yearly allow you to stay on track with your long range goals including being Covid AND cancer free!
- Find a training buddy– One of the biggest concerns we have are about the psychological wellbeing of our loved ones. Being distant allows us to be safe, but we all miss and crave that connection of being near each other. For some people, its a fear of life or death if you unintentionally expose them to Covid. This has created an environment of separation and loneliness. If you can connect with a friend or loved one, we can still mask up and be socially distant! Many individuals have started neighborhood walks where everyone all joins in, has fun conversation and can still distance themselves. Cannot meet with your buddy? Technology has allowed us to connect via video calls, and although isn’t the same as in-person, allows us to hold each other accountable and still have great conversations.
- Listen to your body– You ultimately know when you have had enough, and your body will most certainly prompt you to slow down when its pushed too hard. Don’t ignore those warning signs! If you are dehydrated, tired and run down, battling headaches and body soreness that doesn’t go away, those are all indications that you’re likely pushing yourself too much. Slow down, remember tip 1!
We have learned so much in the last year about Covid, and our uncertainty is still likely high, but not likely near the level when we didn’t know much about this illness. What we have learned is that physical activity is one of your best weapons in keeping your immune system strong and reducing the odds of getting Covid-19, or at the most, give your body a fighting chance against the virus. Remember our mantra, “fight cancer back, exercise is medicine!”
Stay healthy everyone!