Exercise During Cancer Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on September 20, 2022
4 min read

Doctors used to tell people with cancer not to do much physical activity during treatment. While it’s important to avoid movements that cause pain or other issues, more recent research suggests that exercise is not only safe, but helpful during your cancer treatment.

In fact, too much rest can cause you to lose muscle strength, body function, and range of motion.

The right workout can give you a better quality of life and help you feel better.

Doctors don’t know exactly how physical activity changes how you recover from cancer. But there are many ways that regular movements can help during and after your cancer treatment.

Exercise can:

  • Ease pain and fatigue
  • Help keep your body working well
  • Make you less nauseous
  • Help your balance, which will lessen your chance of falls and broken bones
  • Make osteoporosis less likely, which can help keep your bones strong
  • Help keep you at a healthy weight, which can keep your cancer from coming back
  • Lower your chance of heart disease
  • Help you keep more muscle
  • Improve blood flow to your legs, which will make blood clots less likely and ease swelling
  • Allow you to be more independent
  • Help your self-esteem stay high
  • Lower your chance of anxiety and depression

Some doctors believe that exercise during cancer treatment may also help your immune system fight tumors.

If you worked out regularly before your treatment, you may need to lower the intensity a bit. But you don’t need to drastically change the amount of time you exercise.

If you didn’t exercise at all before cancer treatment, make sure you start off slow.

Aim for 30 minutes of moderate activity (movement that includes slightly quicker breath and a light sweat) 5 or more days each week.

If you don’t feel ready for that yet, it’s still important to be as active as possible. Listen to your body.

Keep your doctor in the loop on your physical activity. They might be able to help you adjust your exercise plan to accomplish what you need. If you want extra support, a physical therapist, exercise specialist, or exercise physiologist can help. They can help tailor a program to address your needs. Your doctor can recommend one of these professionals to you.

There are also group fitness programs specially made for people with cancer. They can help you stay mentally and physically fit during your cancer treatment. Your medical team can help you find one, if you like.

Start each of your workouts slow and raise the intensity as you’re ready. If you’re not sure that you’re well enough to exercise, start with a few minutes of activity and stop if you start to feel worse. If you’re very tired during a workout, take some time to rest.

Make sure to drink at least 8 cups of water each day to make sure you're hydrated during your activity. If you exercise in the heat, you may need more water than that.

You also want to ensure that your workout spot is safe. Find somewhere with a flat ground and nothing you could trip over. If you've had radiation, you should avoid pool activities since bacteria in swimming pools can cause infection. The chlorine can also irritate skin that's been through radiation.

To get the most out of your workouts, it's best to work in several types of exercise.

A weekly routine should include:

Strength and resistance training. You’ll complete certain sets of movements that use light weight or resistance from rubber bands. It'll help you:

  • Keep your balance
  • Ease fatigue
  • Lower your body fat
  • Burn calories
  • Gain strength, since you tend to lose muscle during treatment
  • Make your day-to-day activities easier

You should do this type of exercise at least twice a week.

Cardio. This type of workout will raise your heart rate, strengthen your heart and lungs, and can help you feel less tired during treatment. A walk is a simple way to add cardio to your routine. Your doctor may suggest a 40- to 50-minute walk three to four times a week.

Breathing exercises. You may have shortness of breath during treatment. That can make it harder for you to work out. Breathing exercises can improve your endurance and ease stress and anxiety. Both will make it easier for you to be physically active. Examples of breathing exercises are things like controlled breathing and abdominal breathing. Your doctor can give you more information.

Stretching. Add some stretches to your workouts to improve your flexibility, posture, and blood flow. They can help your body repair itself quicker too. What's more, stretching can be helpful if you’ve been inactive for a while during your treatment. You can lay down and lift one leg in the air to stretch your hamstrings or pull one arm over your chest with the other arm for a shoulder stretch.

Balance exercises. After you have cancer treatment, keeping your balance can be difficult. These exercises can help you improve your stability, which will prevent injuries and falls. For example, you can stand on one foot for 10 seconds and then switch to the other foot. You can also walk in a line, with one foot in front of the other, as if you were on a tightrope.