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Strength and Cardio – The Dynamic Duo

Puzzled about that pesky weight that’s been sticking around?  Perhaps it’s the movement that’s missing.

For the general population, regular exercise is especially important to prevent cancer diagnosis.  But for those who have already been diagnosed, are undergoing treatment, or moving into survivorship, exercise is essential. 

Exercise comes in two forms: cardiovascular and resistance training.  The result, however, is just one: A lean, mean, healthier happier and stronger you.

What, when, why and how you ask?  Check out what we found and let it guide you as you take the plunge!


Cardiovascular Training and It’s Benefits

Otherwise known as aerobic exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine defines cardiovascular exercise as “any sport or activity that uses large muscle groups and can be maintained continuously, is rhythmic in nature,” and is generally challenging to the heart and lungs. 

For cancer, aerobic exercise should be a quintessential part of the day.  Mitochondria, or the cellular energy producers in the muscle, multiply through the consistent practice of endurance exercise. Several clinical trials support health benefits from increased mitochondria in the muscle.  One particular study suggests reduced cancer rate at the genomic level through stimulation of mitochondrial respiration [i]. The more the merrier when it comes to mitochondria, it may seem!  Additionally, endurance exercise enhances immunity and suppresses inflammation to reduce tumor promotion.


Did you Know?

People who consistently use aerobic training as their main form of exercise have healthy larger hearts?  The muscle in the heart grows when it’s exercised, just like a normal skeletal muscle.  As a result, the heart pumps blood more efficiently to the organs and muscles.  Your resting heart rate measured in beats per minute (BPM) will decrease; indicating proper fitness.   Additionally, mitochondria will multiply which makes the training session easier and more enjoyable.  Get running!


Training Technique

Smarter is better!  Using a heart rate monitor can help gauge intensity levels when training aerobically, leading to better workouts that don’t leave you wrecked.  Before using the monitor, understand the numbers.  Seeing an exercise physiologist to give you a personal breakdown of heart rate zones, implying aerobic intensity, is beneficial.  They will measure the efficiency with which your muscles utilize oxygen and the rate at which Oxygen is taken up at the muscle to determine general aerobic fitness level.  You can use these numbers to see the percentage of intensity that you are working at, while you are exercising.


Resistance Training and It’s Benefits

A recent systematic review study looked at various cancers and the impact that strength training had on the subjects studied. The most promising result from this study among all subjects with varying types of cancer was an increase in overall strength, with no significant change in body composition.  Due to the low number of studies in the literature, additional benefits are promising but still in question [ii].


Did you Know?

People who lift weights primarily build muscle called type II, fast twitch muscle.  The muscles that are used during weight lifting are slightly different than those type I, slower twitch muscles used during a more aerobic type exercise like jogging.  And it’s ideal to work out BOTH types!


Training Technique

Before pumping the iron, progress!  Start with primarily body weight exercise like pushups, pull ups, dips and body squats.  Try 3 sets of 10 for each exercise.  As you get used to this, start including the tools, but not the weights just yet.  Tools may include resistance bands, kettlebells, and medicine balls mixed in with body weight.  Once comfortable, move on to a mix of machine weights to work on proper form.  Dumbbells and weights are next, but start lighter!  Proper form will always trump weight when trying to build that muscle.  It’s not a competition; its quality over quantity in this case.  This progression will be individualized and should be done over an extended period of days.  


Use It

The ACSM and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend to “get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five days a week, 20 minutes of intense aerobic exercise three days a week, or some combination of the two” [iii].  Individual game plans are always the smartest when developing an exercise schedule, and always listen to your body.


When Treating Cancer

Cancer patients currently undergoing treatment should shoot for the general guidelines while considering minor modifications that work around the limitations posed by the cancer.  Exercise specialists credentialed in cancer management may be beneficial to hire for development of personalized exercise prescriptions.  Remember that any sort of movement is better than none, so be creative to reap the benefits.  



For those who are, or have already, transitioned into a new life after treatment, a regimen focusing on a combination of both moderate to vigorous resistance and aerobic training 3-5 times per week may be best [iv].

Try to stretch easy before and after.  On days off, work in a yoga and foam roller routine to therapeutically massage the muscles back into shape.

Check out some simple examples below, and some are in both categories:


CrossFit Cycling
Body Weight Exercises Swimming
Circuit Training Jogging
Kettle Bell Routine CrossFit
Barbells/Free weights Circuit Training
Total Body Training Elliptical/ElliptiGo
Split Routine Body Training Brisk walking


The real benefits in terms of weight loss, lean tissue building and cancer prevention may, however, result much more significantly when BOTH exercise and a healthy diet are included consistently into the daily schedule.  And a healthy diet means fueling properly around an exercise regimen to ensure proper muscle building and energy to support the exertion, in healthy amounts and containing the correct nutrients.


[i] Lago C.U; Sung H.J; Ma W; Wang P.Y; Hwang P.M. (2011). p53, aerobic metabolism, and cancer. Antioxidants and Redox Signaling. V15, No. 6. pp 1739-1748.
[ii] Hanson E.D; Wagoner C.W; Anderson T; Battaglini C.L. (2016). The independent effects of strength training in cancer survivors: a systematic review. Curr. Oncol. Rep. 18:31. pp 1-18
[iii] Haskell WL et al. (2007). Physical activity and public health: updated recommendation for adults from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 39(8):1423–34
[iv] Chyu C., Halnon N. (2016) Exercise training in cancer survivors. Curr Oncol Rep. 18:38. pp. 1-9.


Jessica Iannotta, MS, RD, CSO, CDN

Jessica is a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO). She studied nutrition at Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. She obtained her Master's degree through the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Jessica has worked in inpatient and outpatient oncology settings since 2001 in the North Shore-LIJ Health System. Jessica is in charge of all operations including clinical and culinary operations ranging from menu development to evidence-based website content, relationships with registered dietitians and social workers and developing processes and protocols for intake, management and outcomes analysis of patients.

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