Menu

Can You Exercise When You Have Lung Cancer?

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on February 08, 2021

When you have lung cancer, the thought of exercise may make you nervous. This is especially true if you have symptoms from your treatments like shortness of breath, chest pain, bone pain, and tiredness. But research shows that if you have lung cancer, regular exercise at a level that works for you is good for your health.

Benefits of Exercise

Exercise offers many ways to help you manage your cancer and treatment. It may:

  • Give you some relief from tiredness related to your treatment
  • Lower your risk of other health complications
  • Help boost your strength and endurance
  • Lessen the chances of your cancer coming back
  • Help with your mood and overall quality of life

How to Start

If you’re just starting out after a cancer diagnosis and treatment, remember to start slow. Before you start any physical activity, ask your doctor if it’s OK to start exercising. Then talk to exercise specialists who can help you make an exercise plan that’s right for you. This includes a physical therapist, exercise physiologist, and personal trainer.

They can adjust your program depending on how fit you are. This will help you slowly and safely build up your strength, endurance, and overall quality of life.

Exercises to Try

Stretching. If you have breathing issues, gentle upper body stretches can help make you expand your lungs, diaphragm, and other chest muscles so you can breathe deeply. Try stretching exercises like yoga. The lengthening and intentional movements may also help you be more flexible.

Stretching can:

  • Be done every day as long you can physically handle it. Follow your doctor’s advice.
  • Give you a greater range of motion
  • Lessen stiffness
  • Increase blood flow and circulation
  • Help you manage stress and anxiety
  • Improve your posture. This can help with your breathing, especially if you sit hunched forward all day at a desk.

Breathing. Living with cancer can often be an overwhelming and emotional experience. But research shows that deep breathing can help to ease stress and anxiety. When you’re stressed out, shallow breaths can help you center yourself. To relax, take deep, slow breaths and use your full lung capacity.

For a deep breath:

  • Inhale through your nose for 5 seconds. Let your bellybutton rise up as you fill your chest with air.
  • Hold your breath for 2 seconds if you can.
  • Slowly breathe out for 5 seconds as you pull your bellybutton toward your spine.

Pursed-lip breathing is another handy technique that can help your breathing, especially if you have shortness of breath. It can also improve your lung capacity and help you get rid of any air trapped in your lungs.

For this method, take a deep breath and hold it for a couple of seconds. When you breathe out, pucker your lips like you’re about to whistle and get every bit of air out. You can practice this method several times a day.

Diaphragmatic breathing is another one you can practice often. When you have lung cancer, the organs most important for proper breathing -- your lungs and diaphragm -- may get weak.

To make up for this, most people tend to use their shoulders and the muscles around them to help them breathe. But this can tire you out quickly and make it harder to breathe. But if you practice diaphragmatic breathing regularly, you can strengthen your diaphragm and stomach muscles.

For diaphragmatic breathing:

  • Sit or stand up straight.
  • Place your hand on your belly.
  • Take a deep breath through your nose as you push your belly out.
  • Move your hand out along with your belly, as this helps to lower your diaphragm and improve lung capacity.
  • Purse your lips and breathe out slowly.
  • Push your hand on your belly as you squeeze the air out of your lips. This helps to empty out your lungs completely.

If you’re new to breathing exercises, start with 5-10 minutes. You can add more time as your lung capacity and breathing improve.

Cardio. Research shows that low-intensity aerobic exercises like walking, biking, swimming, and dancing can improve overall fitness. Depending on your type of lung cancer and how serious it is, it can affect the heart and chest wall. If you have chest pain, stop exercising and let your doctor know.

Cardio exercise can help to raise your heart rate. Over time, this will make your lungs able to hold more oxygen. To start, do light walking for about 5 minutes. You can slowly build up strength to walk longer distances or up stairs.

Make sure to rest as often as you need. Try to do a little every day if you can. As you get better, you can try other forms of light cardio like swimming and biking at a pace comfortable for you.

Strength training. Lung cancer treatments like chemotherapy, along with lack of activity, can make you feel tired. This may weaken your muscles and even lose bone density. Strength training can help you manage these side effects.

You can start out with light resistance for a workout of about 10 minutes. Set small goals you can reach every time, and then do a little more. Strength training will help you build your endurance and make your bones stronger. It also improves overall muscle strength, which can help your breathing. Strength training can also improve your posture and balance.

Make sure to talk to an exercise physiologist or trainer about the right amount of weight or resistance for you. Your bones may be weak from cancer treatments, so be careful and work with a trained professional for best results. If you’re not sure where to start, ask your doctor for resources and advice.

Tips to Remember When You Exercise

  • Use a pedometer. Measure your steps and the distance you cover each time you do cardio. This gives you a way to measure your progress.
  • Before you start any exercise program, make sure you warm up by stretching and loosening your body for a workout. After you’re done, cool down to avoid any injuries.
  • Listen to your body. Lung cancer can set you back physically. When you’re starting to be active again, you may not be able to exercise as long or as hard as you could before your diagnosis. It’s OK to start small and build up slowly.
  • Set achievable goals. Do a little every day or as regularly as you can. Trying to more than you’re able to can may be dangerous.

Not every type of exercise is right for everyone. Depending on how serious your lung cancer is, you may have to stay away from certain physical activities as you get treatment and recover.

When You Need to Be Careful

Some conditions that are part of lung cancer and treatment can make it more challenging to keep up a workout program:

  • Anemia. It’s common to have anemia when you have lung cancer. That’s when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to different parts of your body. Dizziness, a fast heartbeat, extreme fatigue, and swelling are some common symptoms. These symptoms may get worse with exercise. If you have anemia, consult a doctor before you do any physical activity.
  • Compromised immune system. Cancer treatments like chemotherapy can weaken your immune system. It’s best to avoid public places like the gym. Do your workouts at home or around your neighborhood instead.
  • Balance issues. Lung cancer may leave your bones and muscles weak. This can affect your balance. Exercise helps to improve it. But if you’re at risk of falling, try to exercise with a partner who can keep an eye on you.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: “Weight changes,” “Anemia.”

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: “Exercising with lung cancer.”

Translational Lung Cancer Research: “The importance of exercise in lung cancer treatment.”

Stephanie Williams, respiratory therapist, COPD Foundation.

American Lung Association: “Physical Activity and Lung Cancer.”

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.