June 9, 2010 (Chicago) -- Though cancer patients have long been told to take it easy, they can -- and should -- be as physically active as possible before and during treatment, according to new guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
"We have to get past the idea that exercise is harmful for cancer patients," says Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, MPH, lead author of the guidelines and associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
No one is saying you should go out and run a marathon during chemotherapy. "You know your own body, do what's comfortable," she says.
Many cancer patients who stop being physically active during treatment and early recovery never start up again, says Jennifer Ligibel, MD, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
"If we can prevent cancer patients from decreasing physical activity in the first place, we can stop them from going down that slippery slope," she tells WebMD.
Ligibel led a discussion on the guidelines here at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Moderate Activity Is Recommended
The 13-person ACSM panel came up with the exercise recommendations after reviewing published studies looking at the safety and effectiveness of physical activity during and after cancer therapy. The panel focused on breast, prostate, hematologic, colon, and gynecologic cancers.
In general, the same 30 minutes a day, five days a week, of moderate-paced activity such as walking recommended for the general population is beneficial for cancer patients, even during treatment, according to the guidelines.
But it's not a one-size-fits-all prescription, and regimens should be tailored to individuals, taking into account their overall fitness, diagnoses, and other factors that could affect safety, the panel recommends.
People with compromised immune systems may want to avoid exercising in public gyms.
If you have loss of sensation, or feelings of pins and needles, in your hands and feet -- a condition called peripheral neuropathy that's a common side effect of many cancer treatments -- a stationary bike may be preferable to weight-bearing exercise, the panel says.
Women with breast cancer can do upper body training, "but it should be done very slowly, which is not how many people approach it," Ligibel says.
"The important thing," Schmitz says, "is to avoid inactivity."