by Matt Stemley 

We are OFFICIALLY into the New Year!  I am sure that many (if not all of us) share a desire to capitalize on what the new year has to offer.

To make our pursuit of exercise and health as successful as it can be, we must first know WHY we need to exercise as it pertains to our unique and dire situation.  At Maple Tree Cancer Alliance, our goal is to improve the quality-of-life for individuals who have received a CANCER diagnosis.  Our tool is EXERCISE, our focus is CANCER…Exercise is without a doubt one of the most important things that someone who has received a cancer diagnosis can do for themselves and we hope the following will shed some light on why WE have such a passion to serve YOU as an individual diagnosed with cancer.

Read along as we outline the problems and solutions to 2-common problems cancer patients complain of:

  1. Problem:  What is chemotherapy and why does it make us SO beat down?
  2. Solution:  Why is exercise VITAL to someone with cancer ESPECIALLY during treatment?

Problem:  What is chemotherapy and why does it make us feel SO beat down?

There can be MANY side effects to the numerous chemotherapies but today we are going to stick to understanding JUST the loss of energy that occurs.  The prefix “chemo” means “chemical”.  During chemotherapy you are receiving “chemical therapy”.  Now this does the job and aids in the reduction of the tumor and recession of your cancer but this will come at a cost as does any other exogenous medication.  Unfortunately, because chemotherapy is administered intravenously and combines with the blood it has the potential to circulate EVERYWHERE!  Because the chemotherapy is allowed to circulate within the entire body this makes it have “systemic effects” that affect the entire body system.  Our body systems may have different functions BUT they all are made of the SAME thing…CELLS!!!  Each cell is unique to a system in functionality, but ALL cells have one thing in common…the ability to produce energy.  In the body energy is contained within a unique little package called ATP.  ATP is the energy currency that allows us to:  perform mechanical work, think (yes, brain activity requires LOTS of ATP), and string amino acids together to perform protein synthesis to recover after surgeries or your workouts.  This molecule called ATP is produced by our cells in a region of the cell called the mitochondria.  Depending on the type of chemotherapy you undergo, you can experience UP TO a 36% decrease in cellular respiration (aka…THE ABILITY TO PRODUCE ATP).  This process is called “chemotherapy induced mitochondrial dysfunction”.

That means that by the end of chemotherapy your body becomes about 36% LESS able to make the very molecule it needs to make YOU feel like you have control over your life.  

This is why it is so important to give yourself GRACE as you go through chemotherapy.  You will be going through something that will fundamentally impair your ability to attack each day with the tenacity you used to.

Solution:  Why is exercise VITAL to someone with cancer ESPECIALLY during treatment?

This is the fun part!  Again, there are SO many ways that exercise helps the body of a cancer patient but for the sake of brevity we are just focusing on this for the time being.  In order to help a cancer patient feel their best they NEED to exercise!  If a cancer patient can actually exercise during treatment then what we will talk about next will actually offset the chemotherapy induced mitochondrial dysfunction, AND if the person was not able to exercise during treatment these concepts will clear up the mechanism by which deliberate, planned, structured and repetitive exercise will facilitate the recovery process.  In order to cover those things we will break down:  what types of exercise will facilitate your cellular recovery/reconditioning, why they help, and how often to do it.

Training type 1:  Aerobic Cardiovascular Exercise

Cancer patients should engage in 2 primary forms of conditioning which include aerobic cardiovascular training (yes, you can do anaerobic cardio training but that typically involves working at higher training intensities which increases the risk of injury) and also resistance training.

Along with strengthening the myocardium of the heart and speeding the circulation of chemotherapy which reduces symptom severity, aerobic cardiovascular exercise stimulates a certain kind of skeletal muscle cell called “Type 1 muscle fiber”.  Type 1 muscle fibers have a low mitochondrial density BUT what is cool is that these cells can become highly efficient and conditioned to use oxygen.  We talked about how chemotherapy essentially makes our body “less efficient at producing ATP/energy”, well through REGULAR and progressive aerobic cardiovascular training a patient can actually cause those damaged mitochondria to start to operate much more efficiently again!!!  This is the first stage in the recover process!

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that anyone diagnosed with cancer perform 150 minutes of aerobic activity weekly that is spread across 3-5 sessions.  If you cannot get 150 minutes then your goal should be to gradually improve your cardiovascular exercise volume from week-to-week until you can do 150 minutes.

Training type 2:  Resistance Training

When we resistance train we recruit a special kind of skeletal muscle cell called “Type 2 muscle fiber”.  Type 2 muscle fiber differs from Type 1 muscle fiber in several ways, BUT the big difference is that Type 2 Muscle Fiber actually has a higher mitochondrial density!!  This is exciting because through engaging in weight training you can actually build MORE of these mitochondria which serve as our little energy production factories to help ramp up your ATP production!  As your ATP production increases your ability to recover from future surgeries, radiation damage, chemotherapy damage and your workouts VASTLY improves!  (This is why at Maple Tree our patients have significantly fewer hospitalizations, quicker recover times, and fewer emergency room visits!)

The American College of Sports Medicine has said that anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer should exercise EACH major muscle group 2-days per week!  If the muscle’s you exercised remain sore for more then 48-72 hours then you should reduce the training volume and intensity of your workout until you can adequately recover from your workout!

In conclusion, exercise TRULY is medicine, and the side effects are AMAZING!  If you exercise during treatment, you can actually avoid loss of energy and fatigue.  If you did not exercise during treatment, then you now know the role that exercise plays in enabling you to recover and rebuild from the cellular level.  It is NEVER too late to become more healthy, never give up on yourself, and give yourself some GRACE because you have been through A LOT!