Exercise can be beneficial for people diagnosed with blood cancers

Note: This post is written by the team of The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise) at Penn State College of Medicine as part of a first-person blog about their work. Learn more about the group here.

Have you ever wondered if you can exercise if you have been diagnosed with a blood cancer? Blood cancers, or hematological cancers, may include different kinds of leukemias, lymphomas, multiple myeloma, myelodysplastic syndrome, and several other diagnoses. If you’ve previously been diagnosed with a blood cancer, chances are, you’ve probably experienced some disease-related side-effect such as fatigue, shortness of breath, bone and/or joint pain, and low blood cell counts. All of these probably make it difficult to complete your everyday activities and make the thought of exercising seem too strenuous and nearly impossible.

February 1, 2022Penn State College of Medicine News

But, I am here to tell you that exercise is very much doable for people diagnosed with blood cancers; exercise can help with several disease-related side-effects; and exercise is the only medicine – both pill and non-pill – that can help you get back to your everyday activities like work, household chores, and spending time doing things with people you love.

Exercise is very beneficial for all cancer patients and produces numerous health benefits such as improved cardiovascular health, increase muscle and bone mass and strength, reduced feelings of anxiety and depression, and better sleep. The American College of Sports Medicine, the American Cancer Society, and numerous other national and international organizations support and recommend exercise for all cancer types at different times of cancer treatment.

Specifically for blood cancers, aerobic and strength training exercise has been scientifically shown to be highly beneficial. Aerobic and strength exercises provide a stimulating force on your bones that helps signal your body to make new blood cells that generate from your bones. This includes platelets, red and white blood cells, and stem cells. Aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, and cycling helps to improve your cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation, and help reduce fatigue. Strength training exercises increase muscle mass and strength- which are important factors in improving your tolerance of chemotherapy and other cancer-related treatments. Improved muscle mass and strength can also help you recover faster from you cancer-related treatments and any associated side-effects.

So where should you start?

  1. Talk to your doctor about your interest in starting exercise. They might be able to refer you to an exercise oncologist. They specialize in identifying and understanding the needs of patients with different types of cancer and then prescribing personalized exercise. Feel free to click on the ‘Request a Consultation’ link on the ONE Group home page. Your physician will also help you identify the days that it’s safe to exercise, such as when your hemoglobin, platelet, white blood cells and other numbers are in the safe range.
  2. Identify what your goals with exercise are and try to start off with small ones. For example, you want build up muscle strength to be able to complete everyday activities, or you want to decrease your fatigue, or you want to simply keep active before, during, or after your treatment.
  3. Setting yourself up for success is the best way to ensure that you enjoy and stick with your new exercise program. Figure out the best time of the day you feel you have the most energy and are most productive and section off some of that time for exercise. Identify your external motivators, such as music, a workout partner or television for background noise. Consider writing down each time you exercise. This helps you remember what you did and helps to show your progress.
  4. Start with basic exercises and work your way up to the harder, more complicated ones. As you continue to exercise, your body will adapt and you will find that the reasons that were holding you back from exercising will become a distant memory. Try the Workout of the Week in the Practice section of the ONE group website.
  5. Be aware of the safety of the exercises you’re doing. For most people with blood cancers, the immune system goes through ups and downs. It may not be the safest idea to use a gym or recreation center with large groups of people. Instead, try to exercise at a time when gyms are not crowded, or invest in some inexpensive equipment to use at home and avoid crowds altogether. Also, be mindful of your platelets, along with your red and white blood cell counts. These are especially important in helping with blood clots, providing oxygen to your body and fighting infections. If your doctor or exercise oncologist advises that you reduce the intensity of your exercise or suggests that you take a break, it’s okay. Just know that you will eventually return back to your exercises.

More from The ONE Group

  • The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise)
  • Exercise videos
  • Patient guides
  • Current research projects and studies
  • Educational opportunities in exercise oncology
  • Resources for inspiration
  • Latest news
  • The ONE Group blog
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