resistance bands

Stretching for cancer survivors is helpful to maintain muscle health – particularly after surgery [A how-to guide]

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Stretching is essential for many reasons in maintaining health & wellness. It can be done by anyone, at any time – and is very easy to do, and it is alright if you are unsure as I will show you how in this post. In general, the main benefits attained from stretching include:

  • Increased flexibility or Range of Motion (ROM)
  • Reduced likelihood of injury
  • Improved benefits when completing aerobic & resistance exercise

Before I go on, I would just like to let you know, I have created a new Facebook page called Exercise Cancer Community: Health & Wellness, to create a supportive environment for people to share their experiences. Please visit the page, click the Like button on the side of this page or on the FB site and pass it on.


Now, stretching is important for basically anybody to maintain or improve their physical health, but it is particularly important for cancer survivors who have undergone treatment such as a surgery. For example, women with breast cancer who have undergone a mastectomy tend to experienced reduced should flexibility, strength & mobility due to muscle and tendon tissue damage. In fact, here is a great article by Dr Robert Kilgour displaying that home-based stretching can assist in reversing these results, as published in the Journal of Breast Cancer Research Treatments. By engaging in stretching exercises (and eventually resistance training exercises), you will be able to achieve a level of health pre-surgery, or even greater. But if not, simple daily tasks around the house such as reaching into cupboards above the head, discomfort whilst driving or picking up a baby may become challenging.

Here is an example of a "spider-crawl" or "wall walk", where you slowly raise your arm up the wall to the level of your range (not to pain)

Here is an example of a “spider-crawl” or “wall walk”, where you slowly raise your arm up the wall to the level of your range (not to pain)

Before I show you individual stretches, here are the guidelines for stretching:

  • Stretches can be done daily or most days of the week (can do them up to 3-5 times/day)
  • Hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds
  • Repeat each stretch 1-3 times on each side
  • Have a deep breath in when commencing the stretch
  • Only complete the stretch to the full range of your joint (and not to a painful point)
  • Stretching is most effective when the muscles are warm, so after a walk is perfect

Here we go: If you are only a few weeks post surgery (1-3 weeks), you may consider doing “range of motion” exercises, that is just moving your joints to their point, and not pushing further.

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Above: Shoulder flexion & extension

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Above: Shoulder abduction

If these are simple, then lets move on to more stretches for the upper body:

Chest stretch:

  • Arm at 90 degrees against a wall, with forearm on the wall
  • Rotate body away from wall & hold

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Shoulder stretch:

  • Arm across the body
  • Other hand presses the elbow closer to the body & hold

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 Triceps stretch (only if your flexibility allows you to do so):

  • Arm above and behind your head, with elbow in the air
  • Hand above your opposite shoulder
  • Using your other hand, pull the elbow across your body & hold

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 Biceps & forearm stretch:

  • Arm directly in front, with fingers facing downwards
  • Using opposite hand, pull the fingers back & hold

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Do you see how simple some of these are? Definitely can be done at the office, in an elevator or at home! I constantly will be doing stretches to help aid my training sessions in the gym and at soccer around the office. Now here are some lower body stretches to do for the lower body:

Calf stretch:

  • Place hands on the wall
  • Take a step backwards with one leg, with foot placed flat on the ground
  • Bend the front leg, straighten the back leg and feel the stretch

With both feet flat, act as if you are trying to push the wall down. You should feel this in the back of your behind leg

Hamstring stretch:

  • (seated or on a yoga mat) put one leg out as straight as you are able to
  • Lean towards your foot, with your hands together
  • Aim to keep your back straight
  • Point your toe backwards for a greater stretch
  • Resistance bands can also be used for a greater stretch
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If less mobile, use a chair for support

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If you are more mobile and have progressed your flexibility, try a greater stretch using a resistance band

 Quadriceps stretches:

  • Find a stable object for support (wall, table, exercise bike!)
  • Grab your foot of the leg you are stretching
  • Keep legs in-line with each other and pull until you feel a stretch
  • You can also use a resistance band or rope around your foot to assist if you have limited flexibility

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Remember, every day you can partake in stretching, and before you know it, you will be improving your flexibility in no time. Combine this with your aerobic and resistance exercise and you are on your way to achieving a fantastic lifestyle.

Keep up the great work and please remember to provide encouragement to those in need, pass this resource on and keep continuing to send me questions and personal experiences.

 

Your Exercise Physiologist,

David

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Home-based Strengthening Exercises for Cancer Survivors

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Resistance training, or strength training utilises muscle contractions to build up strength by repeating the movements. Particularly during and after cancer treatment, you generally lose a lot of muscle strength and do not return to pre-existing levels. Think about where you used to be. Building up strength with resistance training will assist in getting you there. There are numerous benefits when completing strength training programs that have been shown in exercise-oncology studies and some of these have been listed as:

Other benefits have also been displayed in improved balance (reduced falls risk), sleep quality, pain levels and anxious feelings. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that strength training should be completed 2-3 times per week for most cancers.

Strength training also does not need to be in a gym, which is a common off-putter for a lot of the general population, but everybody is different. If you have access to weights in a gym, I definitely recommend participating in a weights program, but if not, I have written this post to demonstrate that strength training can be safely and cheaply completed in the comfort of your own home.

The above video introduces the use of resistance bands, which can replace expensive weights (and can also travel on holidays with you! I did this on my tour of the United Kingdom!!). Depending on your strength levels, you can start on a light band, and work your way up to the more challenging ones, and they often come in packages which is good for when you get stronger – here is a link I found to purchase resistance bands but there are plenty more types on sites like Amazon.

I have also put together examples of strength training exercises using these resistance bands and body weight exercises, that assists in attaining the benefits offered by resistance training.

Strength exercises for the arms: 

Strength exercises for the back: 

Strength exercises for the chest:

Strength exercises for the legs (beginners):

and for advanced

So in a general rule of thumb, we will aim for around 10 repetitions for each set of exercises. You can do each exercise 2-3 times with a 1 minute rest in between which may give you a program that looks like this (and take approx 20-30 mins):

Exercise        Repetitions  Sets  Rest

Sit to Stand               10              2-3     60s

Bicep Curl                 10              2-3     60s

Chest press               10              2-3     60s

Standing row           10              2-3     60s

Tricep push              10              2-3     60s

Upright row             10              2-3     60s

And a basic summary for you all:

I put it to you, to give this simple, whole body program a shot, at least 2-3 times per week for the next few weeks and see how you go. Stand in front of a mirror so you can monitor your technique and compare to the videos.

After just a few weeks, you will be able to adapt, and rebuild your muscle strength that you may have lost with treatment. You never know, you may even be able to surpass your strength and ability from before your treatment. I have seen this first hand from some women in my ovarian cancer studies who loved doing strength training and made it a part of their normal weekly habits. They loved not having to rely on anybody else and able to partake in activities they had not done in years.

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Let me know how you go!

Also, click follow on the side to subscribe and feel free to pass this onto somebody who you believe will benefit from re-gaining their strength, small steps at a time.

 

David Mizrahi

Accredited Exercise Physiologist – Exercise Oncology Australia

@Davemiz_EP

d.mizrahi@unsw.edu.au