Building muscle may help to beat cancer

Julie from California asked me how to gain weight whilst fighting cancer, without getting fat.

I hadn’t thought about this problem before, so before giving advice, I did some research and found there is good evidence to show that increasing your lean mass (building muscle) can actually help with your cancer treatment.


Here's what I told Julie:


Unfortunately, gaining muscle takes effort on your part. You will need to find a way to do some exercise that involves the muscles being put in resistance. The key to building muscle is to do small quantities of exercise with heavy weights. Aim to do three sets of twelve repetitions, resting for one minute between each set, with a weight that is heavy enough that on the third set, you can’t do any more after seven or eight reps. When you’re doing three sets of twelve comfortably, then increase the weight.


An important thing to know is that muscles need time to repair and grow. When you lift heavy weights, you’re effectively tearing the muscles and those muscles then need three days to repair before you use those muscles again. This means that you either need to create a programme that exercises a different muscle group each day (say chest and back one day, arms and legs the next day, stomach and shoulders the third day), or exercise all groups the same day and then rest for three days. You’ll get better, quicker results with the first option.


You can only gain weight by eating more energy than you burn. Muscles need lots of protein, so you need to increase your food intake with protein-rich foods. If you don’t have an allergy, nuts are an excellent source of protein and they are also rich in fats, so will also give you a boost of energy. Don’t be scared of fats. It’s a complete myth that eating fats make you fat. The body will produce fat from whatever food you eat, if you don’t burn the energy and you don’t work your muscles.


Aim to have a food plan that gets no more than 40% of your calorie intake from carbohydrates, at least 30% from proteins and the rest from fats. I don’t know how tall you are, or how old you are but assuming you’re average height, I reckon you need to be aiming for around 2200 calories a day. If your cancer treatment makes you nauseous this might be a challenge but as I said earlier, nuts are great because they are low in volume, but you get a good blast of protein and energy.

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