Research shows that for most people exercise is safe and helpful before, during, and after cancer treatment. It can help improve your quality of life as well as the energy you have to do the things you like. Physical activity may also help you cope with side effects of treatment and possibly decrease your risk of new cancers in the future.
Too much time spent resting or sitting can cause loss of body function, muscle weakness, and reduced range of motion. Many cancer care teams are urging their patients to be as physically active as possible before, during and after cancer treatment.
The American Cancer Society has a Nutrition and Physical Activity Guideline for Cancer Survivors. These Guidelines call for cancer survivors to: :
These are general guidelines. You can find more information, including how much to exercise for specific cancer-related side effects, on the American College of Sports Medicine Moving through Cancer website.
Becoming more active or staying at your current level of physical activity before treatment may help you handle and recover from your treatment more easily. Research shows that being as active as possible may reduce complications from surgery and may help you handle treatment better. Also, physical activity may help you deal with distress and anxiety, have more energy, and sleep better as you begin treatment.
Many people find that as they start treatment, the ability to be active may be harder. So, starting out in better physical shape means you can tolerate more activity during and after treatment.
Certain things can affect your ability to exercise during treatment, such as:
If you exercised before treatment, you might need to exercise less or at a lower intensity during treatment. The goal is to stay as active as you can. People who were very sedentary (inactive) before cancer treatment may need to start with short, low-intensity activity, such as short slow walks. Talk with your cancer care team about exercising during treatment and whether there are any limits to what you can do.
Most people are able to slowly increase exercise time and intensity as their side effects lessen. What may be a low- or moderate-intensity activity for a healthy person may seem like a high-intensity activity for some cancer survivors. Take your time and be patient with yourself as you gradually increase your activity. Remember – the most important thing is to move as much as you can.
During this time, physical activity is important to your overall health and quality of life. Research shows that getting to and staying at a healthy weight, eating right, and being physically active may help reduce the risk of other serious chronic diseases, as well as the risk of a second cancer.
A healthy lifestyle might also decrease the risk of some cancers coming back. A growing number of studies have looked at the impact of physical activity on cancer recurrence and long-term survival. (Cancer recurrence is cancer that comes back after treatment.) Exercise has been shown to improve cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, body composition, fatigue, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, happiness, and several quality of life factors in cancer survivors. Studies of people with breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers suggest that physically active cancer survivors have a lower risk of cancer recurrence and improved survival compared with those who are inactive.
Physical activity may also help people whose cancer has spread or has become advanced and cannot be cured. Exercise may improve physical function, decrease fatigue, and improve quality of life. Whether you can tolerate more physical activity will depend on your type and stage of cancer, side effects you might have, your current physical ability, and any other health problems. Before starting new activities and being more active, check with your cancer care team about whether it is safe for you to do so.
Always check with your health care team before starting any exercise program, especially if you have any of the following:.
Also ask whether any of the medicines you take might affect how physically active you can be.
Some people can safely begin or maintain their own exercise program, but many will have better results with the help of an exercise specialist, physical therapist, or exercise physiologist. Be sure to get your doctor’s OK first and be sure that the person working with you knows about your cancer diagnosis and any limitations you have. Specially trained professionals can help you find the type of exercise that’s right and safe for you. They can also help you figure out how often and how long you should exercise.
Whether you’re just starting to exercise or continuing to do so, be sure to talk with your health care team about what you can and can’t do. Keep your cancer team informed on how you’re doing in regard to your activity level and exercise throughout and after your treatment.
When starting to get active or becoming more active, there are some important things to think about.
How much you should exercise is different for each person. We don’t know the best level of exercise for someone with cancer. The goal is to have your exercise program help you keep up your muscle strength and keep you able to do the things you want and need to do. The more active you are, the better you’ll be able to exercise and function. But even if planned exercise stops, it’s good to keep being active by doing your normal activities as much as you can. The key to staying active is to keep your exercise program simple and fun. Exercise and relaxation techniques are great ways to relieve stress. Reducing stress is an important part of getting well and staying well.
Starting an exercise program can be a big task, even for a healthy person. It may be even harder if you have a chronic illness, especially if you weren’t used to exercising before your diagnosis. Start slowly and build up as you are able. If you were exercising regularly before you were diagnosed with cancer, you may need to reduce the intensity and length of your exercise sessions for a while. But you can build back up when you feel up to it.
There are ways to add physical activity to the things you do every day. Remember, only do what you feel up to doing.
Cancer survivors may need to exercise less intensely and increase their workout at a slower rate than people who haven’t had cancer. Remember, the goal is to be as active as possible. Keep it safe, keep it fun, and make it work for you.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Last Revised: March 16, 2022