What is Strength Training and Can It Help Cancer Patients?

Key Takeaway:  Research shows that strength training, a type of exercise that can build muscle mass, can improve health in cancer patients.

Strength training is a type of exercise in which one uses resistance to force the muscles to contract to build strength. Resistance for strengthening can come from a person’s own body weight or from gym equipment.

We spoke to Nancy Campbell, MS, an exercise physiologist at Dana-Farber’s Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies, who offers exercise consults to cancer patients and survivors.

What are the benefits of strength training?

Campbell: Strength training can have many benefits for patients and non-patients, including:

  • Increased muscle mass, which is often lost during treatment
  • Maintain or increase bone density
  • Increased metabolism
  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain from muscle mass
  • Help countering diseases such as diabetes
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Help regulating insulin
  • Normalized balance
  • Improved posture

Are there trainers who specialize in strength training for cancer patients? 

Nancy Campbell, MS, leads weekly exercise classes for patients and survivors at Dana-Farber.
Nancy Campbell, MS, leads weekly exercise classes for patients and survivors at Dana-Farber.

Campbell: Yes. The American College of Sports Medicine offers a cancer-specific certification for trainers, though the amount of certified trainers in the state is minimal at the moment. ACSM has recently revamped their guidelines on exercise and offers a list of resources for cancer patients.

Another great resource for training is Livestrong at the YMCA. Livestrong offers a training program for cancer patients and survivors, which takes place at YMCAs across the country. The trainers are knowledgeable on various cancers and exercises that will be most beneficial for different patients. Courses run twice a week for 12 weeks at no cost.

At Dana-Farber’s Zakim Center, patients and survivors can join exercise classes and programs, ask fitness-related questions, and get help with personalized exercise tips.

When is the best time to begin strength training?

Campbell: As soon as possible. It doesn’t take long to lose muscle mass, so starting training early on is best. It’s also a lot harder to regain muscle mass then it is to try not to lose it.

Research also shows a correlation between muscle mass and rates of survival.

How can I do strength training at home and what are some examples of strength training?

Campbell: There is always risk that comes with training, but if done correctly, injury can be avoided. Consulting with a physician is important in ensuring practicing safe exercise.

Strength training can be done with or without equipment. Wall sits, squats, and push-ups are good examples of strength training that can be practiced without equipment. These exercises can be modified slightly to fit the patient’s desired level of difficulty.

Using household objects such as soup cans, or purchasing equipment such as dumbbells, and exercising with these can help build strength, as well.

Is strength training or cardio better for your overall health?

Campbell: I’d say they are pretty equal.  However, new findings are showing the significant benefits that come as a result from strength training.

It is important to recognize that various components of exercise are important: Getting heart rate up, practicing mindfulness, stretching, and building strength can all lead to improving one’s health. 

About the Medical Reviewer

Nancy Campbell is a Clinical Exercise Physiologist in the Zakim Center, is a Certified ACE Personal Trainer, and has the American College of Sports Medicine Cancer Exercise Trainer certification. She provides personalized exercise consultations for patients. Nancy also teaches several strength training-based exercise classes for patients and survivors.

16 thoughts on “What is Strength Training and Can It Help Cancer Patients?”

  1. Are there any exercise programs like those you’ve featured for cancer patients and survivors in the Portland, Maine area? I just would not be able to travel to Boston once a week. Thank you for your help.

  2. Great article. Strength training is absolutely essential especially when looking at long term side effects of chemotherapy treatment. I do want to point out, especially for post surgical breast cancer patients, that range of motion exercises should be your first form of exercise. Often times in our zest to support long term benefits for cancer patients, we forget to mention the foundational steps required in order to move our joints and perform strength training exercises. Decreased shoulder range of motion has effects on many day-to-day activities, including walking, and limits patients’ abilities to be more active.
    Quality of life for breast cancer patients is directly linked to mobility of the shoulder and long term studies show that decreased arm ability is the number one rated issue pertaining to low quality of life scores even 5 years post treatment.
    Thanks for your blog post!

  3. Nancy is amazing! She has a great energy, and I strongly recommend to anyone recovering to check out her classes & the others at the Zakim Center. I had a bone marrow transplant in September of 2018. I started attending classes on a regular basis at the Zakim Center starting in January of 2019 and through the rest of the year while I was home from work. I most enjoyed Women/Wellness/Weights, Fit & Strong, and Gentle Flow Yoga. The strength training classes were just the right speed and customized to individual capabilities, and the participants are friendly and supportive! Attending the Zakim Center classes, specifically the strength training, put me in a good position to “graduate” to Barre and Cycle classes at my gym.

  4. Nancy’s class at Dana Farber Nancy is a a very welcoming place for anyone, no matter what their fitness level. She is an excellent instructor, very compassionate but knowledgeable at the same time. I would highly recommend her class to any DFCI patient.

    Marianne K.

  5. I have been attending Nancy Campbell’s strength training classes at the Zakim Center for over two years now. The exercises we do with weights are invaluable. I feel so much more strength and over-all well-being from the classes. I try not to miss a single class!

  6. The strength training has been enormously helpful to me as a breast cancer survivor. I feel fortunate to participate in Nancy Campbell’s excellent classes and attend them regularly at Dana-Farber’s extraordinary Zakim Center.

  7. The strength training classes at Dana-Farber are an incredible resource. As a DF patient/cancer survivor, I’ve regained confidence in my ability to feel well and strong again through these classes. The teachers are very knowledgeable and attuned to participants’ specific needs and level of strength. And a big plus is the support of other people in the classes.

  8. I started taking Nancy’s “Women, Wellness, and Weights” class right after I finished active treatment for breast cancer. As wonderful as my DFCI surgeon and BWH plastic surgeon were, unforeseen complications following my mastectomy left me with weakness and discomfort on my left side. I knew I needed to regain strength, but was terrified of “doing the wrong thing.” I didn’t know where to start–that’s when my social worker referred me to Nancy. I cannot tell you what a difference the class has made for me. I knew I’d gained some weight and lost muscle mass during treatment, but it wasn’t until I started class that I realized how my balance had been affected. Within a few months, I could see improvement in my stamina, strength, and balance.

  9. Nancy Campbell’s strength training classes have helped me greatly with pain management. I consider them lifesaving because without her class I wouldn’t do the exercise needed to reduce my risk of recurrence.

  10. Nancy’s exercise classes have made a world of difference in my quality of life, improving strength, balance and confidence. The classes are great.

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