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Physical Exercise for Cancer

Exercise is helpful for aerobic training, to increase strength, or to improve flexibility and fitness. It's also used as therapy to restore the body to a healthy state.

Can exercise help people with cancer?

Exercise is helpful for many people with cancer. Experts are still learning more about how physical activity can benefit someone before, during, and after cancer treatment. And about its impact on the immune system. Too much inactivity could result in a loss of function. Most healthcare providers agree that regular amounts of modest physical activity can benefit people with cancer.

Studies have shown that for some people with cancer, regular physical activity can help to:

  • Improve aerobic fitness and muscle strength 

  • Reduce anxiety or depression

  • Reduce tiredness (fatigue)

  • Improve blood flow to the legs and reduce the risk of blood clots

  • Reduce pain

  • Reduce diarrhea and constipation

  • Prevent osteoporosis

  • Reduce the risk of heart disease

  • Increase overall physical functioning

  • Reduce dependence on others for activities of daily living

  • Improve self-esteem

  • Lift mood

  • Improve sleep

  • Reach or maintain a healthy weight

How does exercise work?

There is no specific amount of exercise advised for a person with cancer. The type and amount of exercise that is right for you depends on your unique abilities and what you can handle.

Overall, exercise should make your heart work harder than normal. It is important to be able to monitor your heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle fatigue. Members of your healthcare team—specifically your healthcare provider and physical therapist—can show you how. They can also help you choose the kinds of activities that will have the most benefit. This includes exercise to help you build endurance and strength. And activities to keep your body flexible and functioning correctly.

If you are a cancer survivor:

  • Stay active. Keep active, even when you are receiving treatment.

  • Keep your healthcare team involved. Your healthcare team and fitness professionals need to closely monitor your exercise program. They can suggest the type and amount of exercise that is best for your diagnosis. This helps you prevent injuries. And it helps to safely increase your activities as your strength and endurance build.

  • Aim for 150 minutes of exercise per week. When you are physically able, aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity.

  • Adapt your exercise to your diagnosis. Types of exercise should be geared to your needs and specific diagnoses. For instance, people whose bones are affected may be told not to do heavy weight-bearing exercises. They may result in fractures. Your healthcare team can help guide your exercise decisions. 

You may also have chances to exercise in your daily routine. Walking around your neighborhood after dinner, walking the dog, washing the car, and raking leaves are all good options. They can help build strength, maintain energy, and add to your overall well-being. Choose activities that you enjoy. You are more likely to keep exercising if it's fun.

Are there any possible problems or complications linked to exercise?

There may be problems or complications if you exercise and exert yourself more than was advised for you. That is why it is important for you to plan an exercise program with your healthcare provider.

As an addition to your cancer treatment plan, exercise can be pleasant and productive. It should not replace the care and treatment provided by your cancer care team. Always talk with your provider with questions or for more information.

Special issues

Get permission from your healthcare provider before exercising if you have any of these conditions:

  • Your blood counts are low. And you are at risk for infection, anemia, or bleeding.

  • You have low levels of certain minerals in your blood, like sodium and potassium. This can happen if you have been vomiting or have diarrhea.

  • You are taking treatments that affect your lungs or heart. Or you are at risk for lung or heart disease. Watch for swollen ankles, sudden weight gain, or shortness of breath.

  • You have unrelieved pain, nausea, vomiting, or other health concerns. 

Safety steps to consider as you exercise

Do's and don'ts: 

  • Don’t overexert your body if you are taking blood pressure medicine that controls your heart rate.

  • Don’t hold your breath. This may put a strain on your heart.

  • Don’t exercise on uneven surfaces. You could fall.

  • If you have bone disease, poor vision, poor balance, or weakness, don’t use heavy weights or do excessive weight-bearing exercises.

  • Watch for signs of internal or external bleeding if you are taking blood thinners.

  • If you have swelling, pain, dizziness, or blurred vision, stop all exercise. Call your provider right away.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Sabrina Felson MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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