Exercise for Cancer Patients: Fitness After Treatment

Exercise can help cancer patients maximize health for the long term. Here's how to get started.

Medically Reviewed by Paul O'Neill, MD on February 01, 2007
5 min read

Surviving cancer and making it through cancer treatment are major accomplishments. Most, if not all, survivors find a new priority in life: keeping cancer from returning. The latest research suggests that exercise for cancer patients may help.

If you've made it through the rough road of cancer diagnosis and treatment, you're probably thinking about what you can do to stay healthy. But just what is the best way to get fit, and maximize your long-term health? WebMD talked to the experts about the best exercise for cancer patients after treatment.

There's abundant evidence that exercise and eating right can help prevent people from getting cancer. The latest information shows that exercise for cancer patients can also keep cancer from recurring.

"Several recent studies suggest that higher levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of the cancer coming back, and a longer survival after a cancer diagnosis," said Kerry Courneya, PhD, professor and Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Cancer at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

In studies of several different cancers, being overweight after completing treatment was associated with shorter survival times and higher risk of cancer recurrence.

Women who exercise after completing breast cancer treatment live longer and have less recurrence, according to recent evidence. Colorectal cancer survivors who exercised lived longer than those who didn't, two recent clinical trials showed.

"Clearly, any cancer survivor wants to do all they can" to prevent cancer recurrence, says Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society. "Surely some of their goals for healthy living should be around weight control" and exercise, she adds.

What experts suspected has now been proven. As a cancer survivor, exercising could help you live a longer life -- free from cancer.

The benefits of exercise for the general population are well-publicized. But what if you're a cancer patient?

"Exercise has many of the same benefits for cancer survivors as it does for other adults," says Courneya. Some of these benefits include an increased level of fitness, greater muscle strength, leaner body mass, and less weight gain.

In other words, exercise for cancer patients can make you fitter, stronger, and thinner -- like anyone else who exercises.

Exercise can also:

  • Improve mood.
  • Boost self-confidence.
  • Reduce fatigue.

Lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

When should you start exercising after cancer diagnosis and treatment? "As soon as possible," emphasizes Courneya.

Studies show that after a cancer diagnosis, people slow down. Stress, depression, and feeling sick or fatigued from cancer or its treatment all tend to make people less active.

The problem is, most people stay sedentary after treatment

"As a long-term solution to the problem of fatigue, taking it easy and avoiding activity is not a good solution," says Courneya. "It is important for cancer survivors to get back to exercising to help their recovery."

In other words: if you've down-shifted your activity level since your cancer diagnosis, now is the time to rev back up.

Every person's situation is different. Before starting a moderate to vigorous exercise program, see your doctor.

The following types of exercise can help cancer patients - and everyone else - get back in shape:

  • Flexibility exercises (stretching). Virtually everyone can do flexibility exercises. "Stretching is important to keep moving, to maintain mobility," says Doyle. If you're not yet ready for more vigorous exercise, you should at least stay flexible.
  • Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, jogging, and swimming. This kind of exercise burns calories and helps you lose weight. Aerobic exercise also builds cardiovascular fitness, which lowers the risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.
  • Resistance training (Iifting weights or isometric exercise), which builds muscle. Many people lose muscle, but gain fat, through cancer treatment. For those with a high fat-to-lean mass ratio, "resistance training can be especially helpful," says Doyle.

"Ideally, cancer survivors should do aerobic exercises and weight training," says Courneya. "Both types of exercise are critical to the overall health and well-being of cancer survivors."

An exercise specialist can help design the right program for you. Seek someone certified by the American College of Sports Medicine.

For the general population, the American Cancer Society recommends "at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least 5 days a week."

This amount of exercise is proven to reduce the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Experts say it that it should also be beneficial for cancer patients.

Unless you're already very active, though, you shouldn't expect yourself to achieve this right away. As with anything else, the key is to set small, achievable goals and build on your successes.

"If you've already been active -- keep it up!" says Doyle. "If you haven't been active, start slowly, but start something."

Try to find an activity you enjoy. You may want to buddy up with someone at the same fitness level. Having a friend to work out with will increase your motivation.

Whatever you do, don't get discouraged. Doing anything is better than doing nothing.

"The key is to start slowly and build your body's energy over time," says Courneya. "Your body has been through a lot and it is necessary to challenge it gradually."

You can increase your physical activity without joining a gym, or even leaving the house. Just building more activity into your daily routine can get you started. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Take the stairs instead of riding the elevator.
  • Buy a pedometer (step counter) and increase your number of steps daily.
  • Take frequent breaks throughout the day to stand, stretch, and take short walks.
  • Check the pantry. Lifting cans, detergent bottles, or anything heavy will build muscle. Do three sets of 10 lifts, or until you feel your muscles tiring.

What if you're just too exhausted to exercise?

"Sometimes fatigue can be so severe that it is good to rest" temporarily, according to Courneya. Rest for awhile, start again slowly and build up. Your energy level will increase, over the long term.

Are there any downsides to exercise for cancer patients?

"The risks for cancer survivors are not too different from the general population," says Courneya. Musculoskeletal injuries--soreness, strains and sprains-are the most common.

Exercise for cancer patients may carry a slightly higher risk for heart problems. It is always a good idea to have a complete physical exam and get approval from your oncologists before starting a moderate-to-vigorous exercise program, Courneya adds.

You didn't make it through chemo just to end up on the couch. Get together with your doctor, get an exercise program, and get moving!