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Strength Training for Cancer Patients – Is it advisable?

Though, most cancer patients tend to shy away from exercises since they are weaker, research has proven that they should engage themselves with strength training since it has multiple benefits for the body.  Among the three aspects of well-rounded fitness program – cardio, strength training and stretching – strength training is probably the most nerve-racking since it is the hardest among a well-rounded fitness program.

cancer patient
cancer patient

Cancer patients often told to build cardiovascular stamina slowly and steadily by walking on a daily basis. Of course, you still need the approval of your doctor before engaging in any exercise program.  Once you got their permission, you can start with stretching exercises in order to increase arm and shoulder flexibility. This prepares the body for strength training.

Exercises targeting the shoulders and upper arms have an added benefit of working the muscles in the path of alternative lymph drainage. When the muscles tighten, the lymph fluid also pumps out. It is advisable to strengthen the muscles found in the mastectomy site and also to improve lymph flow.

Three Typical Exercises:

  1. Biceps curl: You can start with sitting with your arm extended on a table or counter at shoulder height. Bend your elbow as you bring your hand toward your shoulder; then straighten your arm back to the starting position.
  2. Triceps extension: You need to lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Straighten one arm to the ceiling and stabilize the elbow afterwards and be sure that the upper arm is perpendicular to the floor. Bend the elbow to 90 degrees, before straightening your arm back to the starting position.
  3. Deltoid raise: Sit or standstill with your arms by your sides, palms facing in. Gradually raised both arms out to the sides to shoulder level, and then lower go back to the starting position.

Strength Training Progression:

  1. For any exercises, start with 1-2# weights and gradually build up to 5# per arm. If you intend to raise the load based on your normal level of strength, add more weight in 2# increments, while monitoring your arm for swelling or feelings of heaviness, pain or heat.
  2. Do any exercises on both sides to balance the muscle development.
  3. Do the routine with one set of 10 repetitions; gradually move to two sets of 10, once you felt progress.
  4. Never increase reps and weight at the same time.
  5. 2 – 3 times a week is enough.
  6. For full-body conditioning, integrate exercises that work other muscles of the upper body, as well as the lower body and core.

Strength training and lymphedema

Back then, women were advised against lifting weights and performing repetitive arm movements in order to prevent lymphedema, a possible side effect of breast cancer treatments. However,  a new study from the New England Journal of Medicine shows that strength training exercises lessen the risk of developing such complication; also prepares women to return to their normal daily activities.

Remember that you will still need some guidance from your doctor before engaging in any exercise program.

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