Regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of exercise. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of wellbeing. Exercise is essential for development of children, maintaining health in adults, and can even reverse some of the effects of aging.
Despite these clear benefits, many people do not participate in regular exercise until they have a medical condition, like a heart attack or cancer, that motivates them to start. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
It is well-known that people who exercise have a lower risk of heart attack and improved survival if they do have one. While immediate treatment of a heart attack using medications and surgery is critical, the truth is that the long-term outcomes are largely based on what happens next. Traditionally, heart disease patients were told to rest and not stress their hearts, a belief that many still hold today. Now we know that exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation programs are key to improving heart health and preventing future complications.
Most cardiac rehabilitation programs include several phases that include monitored exercise, education about nutrition, weight control, stress management, proper medication use, and psychosocial wellbeing. The benefits of cardiac rehabilitation are well-established through research and practice. In fact, many patients credit cardiac rehabilitation with saving their lives, even if they had bypass surgery. Despite this, less than a third of patients who are eligible for cardiac rehabilitation actually attend a program.
Exercise is also known to reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, including breast, colon, bladder, lung, kidney, and endometrial cancers. This is due to the fact that exercise causes changes at the cellular and hormonal level that result in reduced inflammation and improved immune system function. Regular physical activity can also improve survival and reduce the risk of recurrence of cancer.
In addition to helping reduce the risk of cancer development and recurrence, regular exercise can help you handle cancer treatment better. To be sure, cancer treatment can lead to extreme physical consequences including loss of weight, muscle mass, strength, and endurance. At least some of this is due to more time resting and less time being active, the effects of which occur within days and get worse over time.
The fitter you are when you begin treatment, the fitter you will be at the end because you have “saved” more strength and endurance in your fitness bank. You simply have more you can lose before you get to a point at which you can’t complete your normal activities. And post-cancer exercise programs are becoming more common as a way to help women recover from cancer treatment and rebuild strength, endurance, and feelings of wellbeing.
Another benefit of cardiac rehabilitation and cancer exercise programs is the support from other heart attack and cancer survivors. Combined with support from medical professionals, family, and friends, these groups become an essential resource for information, comfort, and encouragement.
If you or someone you know has had a heart attack, heart surgery, or a cancer diagnosis, encourage them to ask their doctor about an appropriate exercise program—it is likely to be the best way to improve quality of life. In our area, there is a cardiac rehabilitation program based at the USC Aiken Wellness Center as well as at several hospitals in Augusta. There is also an exercise program for cancer survivors called Livestrong at the YMCAs in Aiken, North Augusta, and Augusta.