Many people start an exercise program with the idea, “Go big or go home.” They set overambitious goals, or start out trying to do too much, too fast, and they quit after a few weeks.
You don’t have to do that, says PCF-funded Harvard scientist Christina Dieli-Conwright, Ph.D., M.P.H.
If you’re already a workout buff, great! You are helping your body fight and recover from prostate cancer, and lowering your risk of having the cancer return. But if you’re not – no matter where you are on the prostate cancer spectrum – and you want to exercise, starting small is fine. In fact, it’s good!
Note: First, talk to your doctor about what you can and can’t do. For example, men are advised to avoid heavy lifting too soon after prostatectomy, because of the risk of developing an inguinal hernia. And men on long-term androgen deprivation therapy (ADT), who have a greater risk of fracture, should seek medical approval before lifting heavier weights. When in doubt, start with light weights.
“When it comes to exercise, something is better than nothing,” Dieli-Conwright says. “Pick something you enjoy – or something that you hate the least,” if exercise is not your thing. And stick with it. Just do something: fit something into your day.” You don’t have to be like the people in the home exercise equipment or athletic shoe commercials, and you don’t need to push yourself like Rocky Balboa. You can improve your health, and your body’s cancer-fighting capabilities, with even moderate exercise.
“It’s worth it,” says Dieli-Conwright, whose research is focused on finding out why and how exercise slows or prevents cancer recurrence, and how it can reduce the risk of death from other health conditions – diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease – in cancer patients and survivors. Specifically, she is tracking biomarkers in the blood, muscle, and fat related to obesity, lean mass, inflammation, and metabolism to help understand the underlying physiologic mechanisms by which exercise and obesity/sedentary lifestyle make cancer more or less likely to recur. “Exercise is a one-stop shop for anyone in the spectrum of prostate cancer, and caregivers need it, too! Caregivers often take a back seat, but they need to maintain their health and strength, as well.”
Exercise makes you sleep better. It also makes you feel less tired during the day, Dieli-Conwright says. “It makes you feel better, and lowers depression, stress, and anxiety. It reduces the risk of diabetes, which is especially important for men on ADT.” Men on ADT tend to gain weight more easily and also to lose muscle mass. Exercise burns calories, and even light weights or resistance bands can maintain and build muscle strength.
Moreover, improving your cardiovascular fitness also improves your ability to do “activities of daily living,” starting with sitting down and getting up. Exercise prevents deconditioning (loss of strength), which can affect the circulatory and respiratory systems as well as muscles and bones.
Walking: You don’t need to join a gym or even buy any equipment (except for some comfortable walking shoes). You can walk for free! The first step is, literally, a step: “Walking is a great way to start!” says Dieli-Conwright. “It can be done outside if it’s safe, but you can even do it inside, just walking around your home. You can walk with friends or loved ones, or your dog.” When people are sick, she adds, “or hospitalized even for a day or two, the first thing they stop doing is walking.” Deconditioning can happen very quickly. “Just walking from room to room, back and forth, can help prevent this.” Over time, even if you don’t increase your distance, try to improve your gait speed. “People who have a higher gait speed tend to live longer.”
Note: If you have balance issues or other conditions, your doctor can help you modify exercise to fit your needs. The solution might be as simple as a cane!
Circuit training: You can do a lot in 30 seconds. “Circuit training is faster-paced and time-efficient,” says Dieli-Conwright. “One of the main barriers to exercise is that people feel they don’t have time. In circuit training, you set up little exercise stations and move through each station in a systematic way (for example, alternating between upper and lower body exercises), at a good pace.” Do 30 seconds at one station and move to the next one. Then repeat the whole circuit. It may be less than five minutes total, but that’s fine! You can do this once or several times a day. Some DIY stations you can set up:
“Couch squats.” Stand up and sit down, using the sofa or a sturdy chair, over and over for 30 seconds.
Push-ups. You don’t have to do the full-body push-up with straight legs; you can do it with your knees on the ground.
Wall sits: Back to the wall, bend your knees and slide down, hold five seconds, then push back up. Be sure your feet are positioned far enough away from the wall, so when you “sit,” your knees form a 90-degree angle.
Walk in place. Talk about a low-budget station! Just pick a spot, go there, and walk in place for 30 seconds.
Stairs: Not the whole staircase! Just one or two steps, up and down, over and over for 30 seconds.
Weights: If you don’t have actual weights, use what’s available. Water bottles, food cans – anything you can lift safely and easily.
“You can get in better shape without any workout equipment,” says Dieli-Conwright. “Use what you have at hand. The biggest thing is to make sure you have a safe space where you won’t bump into anything.”
Another thing that’s good about exercise: it’s not sedentary! “There is a lot of evidence that sedentary behavior has an impact on mortality. Even taking a 20-second break from sitting every half-hour or hour to take a lap around the kitchen table goes a long way.”
So, instead of “Go big or go home,” think: “Start small at home.” Says Dieli-Conwright: “Don’t be intimidated by unattainable goals, like an ultramarathon. Start small, find things that are going to motivate you, and be consistent. Just keep at it! Consistency is the key.”
Looking for more motivation to start or continue walking, or boost your mileage goal? Join PCF’s 100 Miles in March challenge to raise awareness and support prostate cancer research. Learn more and sign up here.
See the interview with Dr. Dieli-Conwright here.