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Cardio workouts and cancer: Finding what works for you

“Get your blood pumping!” The sentiment goes hand-in-glove with putting your body in motion. For cancer patients, especially those using chemotherapy and radiation, improved cardio could be a factor in an improved quality of life.

We have discussed the health benefits of walking, water exercises, rebounding, and yoga for cancer patients. Beyond that, there is a more profound discussion: your heart and lungs as the foundation of training.

Many people focus on the idea that muscles are a sign of strength; bodybuilders and weightlifters are muscular, right?

While fitness buffs are outwardly prime examples of muscle-sculpting, inside, they equally try to maximize “cardio.” The focus is on four pillars: strength, cardiovascular fitness, mobility, and body composition. (More on these later from a “sculptor of the stars.”)

So, we're going to look at a couple of ways that cardio, the exercise, and cardio, the system, work within cancer patients. Key to both is the cardiovascular system – heart and circulatory system – and the respiratory system – lungs, mouth, nose, throat, voice box, and windpipe – which run in conjunction with each other.

Why is “cardio” – the joint effort of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems – so crucial to overall health, especially in cancer patients? Let’s first look at the why in light of problems that may arise from chemo and radiation.

If you are using a natural or integrative cancer treatment, the cardio workout aspect of your overall health already should be part of your daily routine.

In either case, cardio training is beneficial to your overall health. So, what are you waiting for?

What is cardiac toxicity?

Chemotherapy kills cancer cells. A side effect of chemo is healthy cell death, some of which may also be in and around the heart. When these chemicals damage the heart, it is called cardiac toxicity.

Examples of cardiac toxicity include:

Acute coronary syndrome – damage to blood vessels, which decreases blood flow to the heart, can cause a heart attack.

Cardiomyopathy – a weakened or enlarged heart muscle that may result in changes to heart rhythm or heart failure.

Congestive heart failure – the heart cannot pump enough blood throughout the body and may lead to a heart transplant.

Myocarditis – swelling of the heart that may lead to changes in heart rhythm or heart failure.

Pericarditis – inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart, which may cause heart failure.

What causes cardiac toxicity?

Anthracyclines – a type of antibiotic that comes from certain types of Streptomyces bacteria used to treat many types of cancer, including bladder, bone, breast, head and neck, kidney, leukemia, lymphoma, sarcomas, skin, and stomach. The chemo drugs that most commonly cause heart damage are anthracyclines: Cerubidine, Doxil, Ellence, Idamycin PFS, and Valstar.

Cyclophosphamide –an alkylating agent chemo drug that also can damage the heart. Cyclophosphamide is typically used to treat bone, breast, leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma, ovarian, sarcomas, and skin cancers.

Targeted therapy – these drugs also can cause heart damage. Examples of targeted therapy drugs include Avastin, Herceptin, Nexavar, Sutent, and Tykerb.

Radiation therapy – Many breast, lung, and lymphoma cancer patients receive radiation therapy to the chest. This way, radiation can damage the vessels that bring blood to the heart.

Can cardio exercises help cancer patients?

In 2012, the University of New Mexico examined how exercise impacted cancer patients’ quality of life during treatment. The study involved data from 56 trials with 4,826 participants. The researchers reported the positive effects of exercise were more pronounced with moderate- or vigorous-intensity programs. [2]

A 2018 UK study of 33 unique trials covering 3,257 patients found that aerobic exercise improves prognosis and quality of life after chemotherapy. Four of the trials reported reduced chemotherapy toxicity. [3]

Obviously, more research is needed to determine the impact of exercise on chemotherapy. Still, we do know that cardio is a significant part of overall health.

Aerobic exercise reduces the risk of certain cancers and many other conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Weight-bearing exercises, like walking, help decrease the risk of osteoporosis. [4]

Exercise advice from a pro’s pro

If you’re a movie buff, the name Corey Calliet probably doesn’t come to mind. But if you’ve watched Michael B. Jordan in Fantastic Four, Black Panther, or Creed, you know Calliet’s work. He’s the man responsible for training Jordan.

“I got into fitness and nutrition because I wanted to look good for the girls,” Calliet admits. “My first want for training was the aesthetic part. I wanted to look good – abs, nice arms, good chest.”

Calliet initially set his sights on becoming a bodybuilder before deciding to have a more significant impact on the world at large. “I became addicted to [bodybuilding]. I found out I can change everything about my life by focusing on my body, my nutrition.

“Now, I look at myself as an artist, not a trainer,” he adds. “It’s a unique craft. A light bulb came on, and I started to transform people into what they want.”

Calliet says he is more than a trainer, noting to clients he’s also a friend, counselor, and therapist to clients. “People think the physical change is more important than the inside,” he says. “You have to change their heart, their mind, their soul. They have to commit.”

He also notes cardio is key to burning fat. He says your body uses stored glycogen to fuel your workout session. After weight training, a cardio workout will tap into fat for energy.

Calliet’s core training focus has three aspects:

Fasted Cardio – Calliet recommends 30 to 45 minutes of cardio in the morning before eating.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – incorporate weights, bands, or your own body weight. Do the exercises for 30 seconds, then rest 30 seconds. Rinse and repeat. The 30-on, 30-off process increases metabolism.

Cardio Post-Weight Training –30 to 45 minutes of cardio after weightlifting increases the potential for burning fat.

Basics of cardiovascular fitness

Your body adapts to the type of training you do. When the body gets into a routine, it is harder to achieve sustained results. Vary your cardiovascular activity!

Bike riding, swimming, speed walking, running can all be cycled weekly. Your workouts will be challenging and effective in keeping your body in motion.

A heart rate monitor is a crucial piece of equipment for dialing in your cardiovascular training. Try to exercise within 60-80% of your maximum heart rate to achieve the optimal physiological results.

Be sure to enjoy appropriate rest intervals. Set your exercise intervals and have a work:rest ratio of 1:4. If you sprint on a bike for 15 seconds, rest for 60 seconds.

Your body will adapt to your workouts. The goal is to work for more challenging sessions as time goes on.

Low-Impact Cardio Workout

Intermediate Cardio Workout

Advanced HIIT Cardio Workout


What are the benefits of cardio workouts?

Cardiovascular training has physiological and psychological benefits. Cardio boosts metabolism, aids weight loss, increases breathing rate, and raises the heart rate. Cardio also strengthens the heart muscle and improves the amount of blood the heart can pump around the body. Also, muscles receive more oxygenated blood; this assists in removing waste products (i.e. lactic acid). Cardio releases endorphins, which help relieve stress.

How much cardio training should I do?

It depends on your level of fitness. If you are a beginner, start with 10-20 minutes of cardio three times a week. Gradually build up to 30 minutes and above most days a week. The reality is that your goals are not like anyone else's. Do it at your pace (but do challenge yourself)!

Should I vary my cardio training?

Mix it up! Your body will get used to certain exercises and your fitness will plateau. If it's hard to get motivated, alter your workouts. Something as simple as moving your workouts outside (or inside) will help to keep you engaged.

What if I also want to do weight training?

Definitely try to do weight training before cardio workouts. Weight training is a quicker, high-intensity workout and your body will use glycogen for energy. The cardio workout will use fat for energy.

What is an HIIT workout?

High Intensity Interval Training is a top fitness trends. HIIT involves fast, intense bursts of exercise, followed by quick recovery periods, or low-intensity activity. (The main benefit: an elevated metabolism and the body keeps burning fat after the workout is completed.)

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  1. Chemotherapy Agents That Cause Cardiotoxicity.
  2. Exercise Interventions on Health-Related Quality of Life for People With Cancer During Active Treatment.
  3. A Systematic Review of the Safety and Efficacy of Aerobic Exercise During Cytotoxic Chemotherapy Treatment.
  4. Aerobic exercise: Top 10 reasons to get physical.

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