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Exercise for Life

Just as physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of ever getting cancer, research indicates that exercise decreases the risk of a cancer recurrence and improves survival. Oncologists agree that one of the best things cancer survivors can do to remain healthy is to get regular exercise.

The benefits

Studies have found that breast cancer patients who exercised moderately (three to five hours of normal-pace walking a week) had improved emotional well-being and better survival rates and than their more sedentary peers.

Being overweight increases the chance that some cancers, such as prostate, colon and breast cancers, will return, and exercise helps control weight gain. In breast cancer, physical activity reduces excess fat cells that produce the high levels of estrogen associated with cancer. Exercise also may inhibit other hormones and growth factors believed to play a role in breast tumor development.

While long-term data aren't yet available, exercise may turn out to have more influence on breast cancer than diet, says Alexandra Heerdt, MD, an attending surgeon in the breast service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She is leading a pilot study in which breast cancer patients are taught a home-based plan that combines aerobic exercise and strength training; the latter is aimed at preventing lymphedema, a painful arm swelling that troubles some women after lymph node removal. The goal is for women to learn the program at the center while waiting for treatment, and to be motivated enough to continue it on their own.

In studies of colon cancer patients, scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston found that patients who routinely exercised lowered their risk for a cancer recurrence and increased by 50 percent their overall chance for survival compared to inactive patients.

In addition to possibly preventing another bout of cancer, physical activity helps protect against heart disease, diabetes, and the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis. It also builds strength and stamina, boosts the immune system, and enhances quality of life by lessening fatigue and depression and raising self-esteem.

Getting the right amount

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults get a minimum of 30 minutes of "moderate-intensity physical activity" on five days or more, or at least 20 minutes of "vigorous-intensity activity" on three days or more. In addition to the aerobic component, adults need muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week.

Don't worry if you've never been an athlete; there are many ways to be active. Moderate aerobic activity can encompass anything from brisk walking to square dancing to playing with your grandkids; vigorous activity can be jogging, playing singles tennis, or downhill skiing.

Muscle strengthening—such as lifting weights, using resistance bands, or practicing yoga—should target the body's major muscle groups, with each movement done until you find it too taxing to do another repetition.

Making it a habit

Solidifying exercise as a lifetime habit is a challenge. However, the period following treatment is an opportune time, since many cancer survivors are looking for new, empowering "tools" to keep them healthy, says Harriet Berman, PhD, executive vice president of clinical programs at the Wellness Community-Greater Boston.

The key is finding something you enjoy and will stick with. If you lack motivation to exercise alone, find a buddy or join a class.

That's what Randi Fox Tabb did. Never much of an exerciser, the Penfield, NY, preschool principal was overweight when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and gained another 20 pounds during treatment. After two hip replacements, Tabb bought a cross trainer and joined a Zumba class, an energetic dance workout done to salsa music. She dropped 70 pounds and is now a Zumba enthusiast: "I just love it...I miss it when I don't do it."

Nancy Passavant, a breast cancer survivor from Newton, Mass., and retired marketing specialist, found something even more novel – dragon boat racing. Dating back to ancient China, the sport is gaining popularity among cancer survivors, who find it builds physical strength, support, and camaraderie. The colorfully decorated boats seat up to 20 paddlers who keep pace to a drummer's beat.

Now captain of the Wellness Community's dragon boat team, which is comprised of male and female cancer survivors who practice on Boston's Charles River, Passavant, 61, says nothing compares to the rush she gets when paddling with her teammates. "I feel so alive when I'm out on the water," she says. "I don't think about my cancer at all."