Exercising During Cancer Treatment

If you have been recently diagnosed with cancer or are undergoing treatment, it's important to take special care of yourself. Studies show that one of the best ways to do this is to stay physically active.

That doesn't, of course, mean you should run a marathon or scale a mountain. But it's wise to add some form of regular exercise to your daily life--even during cancer therapy. Moderate aerobic exercise, such as riding a stationary bicycle or taking a daily walk, coupled with the use of light weights for strength training, can enhance physical well-being and spur recovery.

Exercise reduces fatigue

Research has found no harmful effects on patients with cancer from moderate exercise and, in fact, has demonstrated that those who exercised regularly had 40% to 50% less fatigue, the primary complaint during treatment. (See Fighting Cancer Fatigue.)

Engaging in regular exercise increases muscle strength, joint flexibility and general conditioning, all of which may be impaired by surgery and some therapies. Exercise is known to improve cardiovascular function and to protect bones. It also elevates mood, offering drug-free relief for the feelings of depression that may accompany a cancer diagnosis.

Finally, exercise helps control weight -- a crucial factor, as studies have shown that gaining weight during and after treatment raises the risk of a cancer recurrence, particularly for breast, colon and prostate cancers.

When to begin

The sooner you start exercising, the better you'll feel, the fewer medications you're likely to need, and the lower your risk will be for complications, says Andréa Leiserowitz, physical therapy supervisor at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, an affiliate of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She recommends implementing an exercise routine before treatment gets underway - especially if you have been inactive.

Leiserowitz advises asking your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist who works with cancer patients and can design an individualized exercise program. For example, exercises can be prescribed to improve range of motion and prevent lymphedema, a chronic arm swelling that affects some breast cancer patients after lymph node removal.

Exercise with impact

An effective exercise program has three components:

  • An aerobic workout that pumps up your heart rate. Examples include brisk walking (outdoors or on a treadmill), jogging, swimming, or bicycling.
  • Strength training to tone and build muscles. This includes lifting weights or working with a machine circuit or resistance bands. (Be sure to get instruction if you're new to this type of exercise; light weights are sufficient to maintain strength.)
  • Stretching to keep muscles and joints limber.

Proceed with care

It is important to discuss with your doctor or physical therapist the type of exercise you are considering to ensure it will be safe.

The NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®) for Cancer-Related Fatigue advise starting slowly and progressing incrementally. Depending on fitness and comfort level, some people may want to start with a 10-minute walk around the block; others may find they can exercise for 20 minutes (or longer) right away.

Your goal should be at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week or more. But be cautious: if you try to do too much, you may become discouraged and stop exercising altogether. On the other hand, if you were a regular at the gym before cancer, you may have to lower the intensity of workouts for awhile.

Here are some additional suggestions:

  • If you don't have the energy to exercise a full half hour, break it up; try three 10-minute walks during the day.
  • Make exercise enjoyable; recruit a walking partner or listen to music with headphones while on a recumbent bike or treadmill.
  • Dress comfortably and drink plenty of water.
  • Warm up by swinging your arms or marching in place and cool down with gentle stretches.
  • Do some gardening or house cleaning – both provide physical workouts.
  • Consider yoga and tai chi; though not aerobic, they integrate movement and meditation and enhance wellness.
  • Look for programs designed for cancer patients. Some health clubs and hospitals offer exercise classes that address the challenges and needs of people with cancer.
  • If on radiation therapy, avoid swimming pools; they can expose you to bacteria that may cause infections and the chlorine may irritate radiated skin.
  • Listen to your body; don't exercise if you're not feeling well or running a fever.