The Importance of Muscles: They’re Not Just For Good Looks!

Kate Williams Bone Health, Cancer and Fatigue, Physical Function, Resistance Exercise, Strength training

“Maintaining and increasing muscle mass are recommended for all cancer survivors during and after treatment.” – American College of Sports Medicine

Did you know that in the average healthy human body, skeletal muscle makes up about 40% of your body mass? This number tends to decline with age however, with a typical drop in muscle mass of about 30% between the ages of 20 and 80 years. Unfortunately this effect is much more pronounced in people who are inactive or unwell – more often than not in the case of someone with cancer, both.

The good news is you can reduce this effect. In fact some trials have even shown patients undertaking an exercise program during treatment have reversed it – yes they are actually becoming stronger during treatment! Here are some of the reasons why you should look after your muscles, whatever stage of treatment you’re at.

1. Increases muscle tone and strength: It’s the most obvious one, but do you know how much muscle wastage can occur during treatment? Muscle loss can be around 10-15% for patients undergoing chemotherapy. This may follow on from surgery, when muscle wastage has already occurred due to a period of inactivity whilst recovering. On top of this, hormone treatments (such as those which diminish testosterone and estrogen levels) further deplete our muscle stores. Whether you’ve had one or all of these types of treatment, it’s likely your muscle tone needs some restoring.

2. Improves everyday functioning: practicing strengthening exercises conditions the body for every day movements such as bending down (gardening, picking up the grandchildren), lifting (carrying shopping bags, holding pots and pans) and reaching overhead (hanging out washing, pruning). Exercise Physiologists are very good at creating a program of exercises which mimic the tasks you would like to do more of, helping you to perform them with great ease.

3. Enhances energy levels: Think of it like this – the body which is stronger and able to perform tasks (such as those above) with greater ease does not need to exert as much energy to perform that same task as the deconditioned body. This leaves more energy for you to do the things in your day you enjoy. Oh, and exercise!

4. Decreases body fat: Muscle is the fat-burning tissue of the body and thus has a big influence on metabolism and maintaining a healthy weight, which is vital in long-term survival. I often explain this to my patients in car terms (the only time you will hear me talk about motors) – muscles are engine, fat is the fuel. The bigger the engine, the more fuel you can burn through at any given moment, whether being active or sitting still. So why waste time being a little 4 cylinder when you can be a V8?! Rev that engine!

5. Maintains bone density: Our bone density naturally declines from about 30 years of age, however several factors can speed this process up, including lack of exercise and many forms of cancer treatment (again, particularly those that are hormone-related). This further increases the risk of osteoporosis, a disease of brittle bones which often lead to fractures later in life. Weight-bearing training causes muscles to exert stress on the bones, which in turn stimulates bone growth and slows the bone density slide.

6. Withstanding treatment: keeping your body in good condition is pivotal to it tolerating the rigors that cancer treatment throws at it, whether surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy or hormone therapy. The patient able to better manage their treatment is more likely to finish their treatment in full, insuring better long-term outcomes.

7. Improves immune function..? : While we know a generally healthy body is good for our immune function, emerging research suggests that muscle may even play a role in directly attacking the cancer. These small scale studies suggest that exercising muscles may in fact produce chemicals which stimulate the body’s own defences to seek and destroy tumour cells. So potentially more muscle equals more cancer-fighting chemicals… but further research is needed before we can say this for sure. Watch this space!

So what is the best way to go about improving your muscle mass? What sort of equipment should you use? And how often should you do these sorts of activities? We’ll be answering these questions in next month’s post – stay tuned!

Special considerations are required when beginning an exercise program as a cancer sufferer or survivor. If you are considering taking up some strength training exercises, speak to your exercise physiologist about a program that is safe and appropriate for you.

American College of Sports Medicine. 2010. American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable on Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 42(7), pp. 1409-26.

Evans, WJ. (2010). Skeletal MuscleLloss: Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Inactivity’, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(4), pp. 1123S-1127S.

Catalyst, (2016). [TV programme] 2: ABC.