Cancer survivors are strong by definition, but your muscles need to be strong too. People with cancer who undergo treatment are at particular risk for losing lean muscle mass. Strength training can help you restore lost muscle mass and benefit your overall health.
When you think of strength training, you may think of those super pumped weightlifters hanging out on Venice Beach in the 70’s. Yes, that’s one way to think of it.
Strength training is physical activity that improves muscular fitness by exercising muscles against isometric or isotonic resistance. Either way, you apply a load to the muscle and it adapts to get stronger.
Isometric resistance - contracting your muscles against a nonmoving object, such as against the floor in a push-up.
Isotonic strength training - contracting your muscles through a range of motion, as in weight lifting.
Let’s look at 5 specific benefits of strength training for cancer survivors. Some are obvious while others are more surprising.
1. Strength training boosts your energy.
Conquering cancer survivor fatigue is the reason Brio Survivor Wellness exists - that’s why this benefit of strength training is my favorite! A major cause of cancer survivor fatigue is physical deconditioning - the decrease of function and loss of lean muscle mass that can result from the cancer treatment experience. Because muscle strength is necessary to go about your daily routines and accomplish the physical tasks in your life, strength training can make the work (and joy!) of living your life easier and relieve the feeling of exhaustion after cancer.
Strength training can also increase endorphins which helps energy and mood. Additionally, it’s been shown that strength training improves body image, mental health, and feelings of accomplishment, which can certainly give you an energy boost!
2. Strength training encourages weight loss.
Obesity is a risk factor for many cancers and can increase your recurrence risk. The great news is that strength training can lead to a healthy metabolism and result in weight loss. As a matter of fact, strength training was found to be more effective at preventing increases in visceral or belly fat than aerobic exercise (like running, walking, bicycling, swimming, etc.)
Strength training results in weight loss because it increases your resting metabolism - the rate your body burns calories during normal activity. This creates a scenario where you’ve got fewer excess calories available to turn into pesky fat.
3. Strength training makes you stronger and improves flexibility, function, balance, and body mechanics.
It’s a bit silly to point out, but strength training makes you stronger!
If a muscle is weak, it puts a strain on the structures around it. This leads to injury, arthritis, and chronic pain. Strong muscles lessen strain on surrounding structures, decreasing your risk of injury. Additionally, strength training increases the number and girth of tendon fibrils which increases tendon strength, further preventing injury.
Strength training promotes flexibility, good balance, coordination, and posture so your body can move as it’s meant to - with ease and grace. In this modern world, we’re all hunched over our steering wheels and computers - that’s why good body mechanics are more important than ever. Making sure you take care to put all of your joints through their “range of motion destiny” with strengthening exercises will keep them working well and will improve your quality of life.
If strength leads to fewer injuries, less pain, and sound physical function, you should be able to do exactly what you want to do with your life. It’s simple but important.
4. Strength training reduces the effects of chronic disease.
For me, this is a big deal: strength training can protect you from cancer.
Visceral fat or belly fat can promote cancer growth because it makes a cancer growth protein called FGF2. As mentioned above, strength training actually decreases visceral fat by creating a more efficient metabolism. Less belly fat equals less cancer!
Additionally, muscle mass is a strong predictor of cancer treatment outcomes. Loss of muscle mass is associated with a higher risk of chemotherapy toxicity, faster tumor progression, and lower survival rates. More muscle equals better cancer outcomes!
Beyond cancer, strength training can improve general health conditions.
Less visceral fat leads to healthier hearts because the heart’s function is preserved over time in a lean body - it doesn’t have to work as hard to pump against the lower pressure system (literally lower blood pressure) of a lean body. Lean people also have less visceral fat and thus less coronary artery disease. Studies also suggest that strength training has a positive effect on good cholesterol.
Strength training can also prevent or improve diabetes. Bigger muscles improve your body’s ability to metabolize blood sugar which results in less insulin resistance and lower circulating blood sugar levels.
One of the greatest benefits of strength training is the prevention of osteoporosis or brittle bones. Strength training significantly increases bone mineral density. Weight-bearing exercise like isotonic or isometric strength training lightly stresses and pulls on the bones which causes them to strengthen themselves with the deposition of calcium.
5. Strength training improves brain function.
Many cancer survivors experience a decline in congitive function, often termed “chemo brain.” Strength training can improve brain power by increasing brain circulation which brings more oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Performing twice weekly weight training for six months has been shown to result in significant cognitive improvement on cognitive tests in people 65 and older with mild cogntiive impairment.
All of these benefits certainly add up to a greater quality of life! But I’ve got one more nugget for you - the final benefit of strength training I’ll mention is a longer life. Studies have found that grip strength, essentially the ability to grip objects strongly with your hands, predicts death from any cause. That’s to say people who are strong live longer!
There are so many ways to add strength or resistance training to your exercise routine, and you don’t need expensive equipment or a pricey personal trainer to do it. You can squat against a wall, or do yoga moves like planks or cobra. To help you get started, I’m making the Brio Survivor Fatigue Solution Exercise Plan available to you, for FREE! Make sure you get clearance from your doctor and start strength training today!