Exercise Can Help Cancer Patients’ Quality of Life

A lifestyle that includes physical activity can be beneficial for just about everyone, no matter their age, and as experts now know, even if they have cancer. At one time, patients with cancer, especially in the advanced stages, were often told by their doctor to rest and limit their exercise. But newer research has shown that exercise is not only safe and possible during cancer treatment, but that it also can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

Most cancer patients who receive chemotherapy and radiation experience fatigue—a severe tiredness that doesn’t get better with rest. This often leads to a lack of physical activity, which in turn causes muscle weakness and reduced range of motion. Beginning an exercise program can break this cycle, reducing fatigue and helping patients carry out normal daily activities. Always check with your doctor, however, before starting any exercise routine, to make sure it’s safe for you.

How exercise can help

Exercise can:

  • Improve balance
  • Strengthen muscles, or keep them from weakening
  • Lower the risk of heart disease
  • Lessen the risk bones will weaken
  • Lessen the risk of blood clots
  • Lessen dependence on others to perform daily tasks
  • Improve self-esteem and lower risk of anxiety and depression
  • Lessen nausea
  • Lessen fatigue
  • Help control weight

Questions to ask your doctor

Even though exercise is good for most cancer patients, a lot of people don’t get any regular physical activity beyond their usual daily activities. Research has shown that patients are more likely to exercise if they have specific instruction to do so from their doctor. Patients and their caregivers should ask their doctor or medical team about the kind of exercise that’s right for them.

  • Ask if you have any risk factors or are taking any medications that could interfere with an exercise program.
  • Ask if it’s OK to drink extra fluids while exercising.
  • Ask if certain types of exercise are safer or better for you than others.
  • Ask if it’s safe for you to exercise above a moderate level of exertion (about as much effort as a brisk walk).
  • Ask if there are any warning signs you should look for while exercising, which would indicate you should stop.

Tips for exercising with cancer

The goal of exercising during cancer treatment is to help maintain your endurance, strength, flexibility, and ability to do the things you need and want to do. People who were used to exercising before they were diagnosed with cancer often have to reduce the amount and intensity of their program. People who are new to exercise should start slowly and rest frequently.

  • Do some activity every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
  • Set up a daily routine that allows activity when you are feeling your best.
  • Try to include physical activity that uses large muscle groups (thighs, abdomen, chest, and back).
  • Try to include exercises that use resistance or light weights.
  • Try to include stretches, which increase your flexibility and maintain your range of motion.
  • Exercise moderately. This is not the time to push yourself too hard. Rest when you need to.
  • Unless you are told otherwise, eat a balanced diet that includes protein, and drink plenty of water.

Again, be sure to talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise routine.

Learn more about safely exercising during cancer treatment in the document, Physical Activity and the Cancer Patient.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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