Physical Exercise for Cancer
Exercise is helpful for aerobic training, to increase strength, and/or to improve
flexibility and fitness. It's also used as therapy to restore the body to a state
Can exercise help people with cancer?
Exercise is helpful for many people with cancer. Scientists are still learning about
how physical activity helps cancer and what impact it has on the immune system. Too
much inactivity could result in a loss of function. Most healthcare providers agree
that regular amounts of modest physical activity can benefit people with cancer.
Studies have shown that for some people with cancer regular physical activity can help
Improve aerobic fitness and muscle strength
Reduce anxiety or depression
Improve blood flow to the legs and reduce the risk of blood clots
Reduce diarrhea and constipation
Reduce the risk of heart disease
Increase overall physical functioning
Reduce dependence on others for the activities of daily living
How does exercise work?
There is no specific amount of exercise suggested for a person with cancer. The type
and amount of exercise that is appropriate for you depends on your unique abilities
and what you can tolerate.
Overall, exercise should make your heart work harder than normal. It is important
to be able to monitor your heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle fatigue. Members of
your healthcare team—specifically your healthcare provider and physical therapist—can
show you how. They can also help you choose the kinds of activity that will be most
beneficial. This includes exercise to help you build endurance and strength, and keep
your body flexible and functioning properly.
For cancer survivors, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends the following:
Stay active. Avoid inactivity, even when you are receiving treatment.
Keep the health team involved. The healthcare team and fitness professionals need to closely monitor your exercise
program. They can suggest the type and amount of exercise appropriate to for your
diagnosis. This helps you avoid injuries and safely increase your activities as strength
and endurance builds.
Aim for 150 minutes of exercise per week. When physically able, aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic
Adapt your exercise to your diagnosis. Types of exercise should be geared to your needs and specific diagnoses. For example,
people with bone involvement may be told to avoid heavy weight bearing exercises that
may result in fractures. Your healthcare team can help guide your exercise decisions.
Your daily routine can also provide opportunities for exercise. Walking around your
neighborhood after dinner, walking the dog, washing the car, and raking leaves are
all activities that can help to build strength, maintain energy, and contribute to
your overall well-being.
Are there any possible problems or complications associated with exercise?
Problems or complications are possible if you exercise at a level of exertion that
is inappropriate for you. That is why it is important for you to plan an exercise
program with your healthcare provider.
Exercise, as an addition to your cancer treatment plan, has the potential to be pleasant
and productive. It should not replace the care and treatment provided by your cancer
care team. Always talk with your healthcare provider with questions or for more information.
Warnings regarding exercise
Do not exercise:
If your blood counts are low and you are at risk for infection, anemia, or bleeding.
If the minerals in your blood, such as sodium and potassium, are not normal (which
is likely to be the case if you have been vomiting or having diarrhea).
If you are taking treatments that affect your lungs or heart, or are at risk for lung
or heart disease. Instead, talk with your healthcare provider first. Watch for swollen
ankles, sudden weight gain, or shortness of breath.
If you have unrelieved pain, nausea, vomiting, or other health concerns. Always talk
with your healthcare provider before beginning any exercise program.
Precautions to consider as you exercise
Do's and don'ts:
Do not overexert your body if you are taking blood pressure medicine that controls
your heart rate.
Do not hold your breath, as this may put a strain on your heart.
Do not exercise on uneven surfaces that could cause you to fall.
If you have bone disease, poor vision, poor balance, or weakness, do not use heavy
weights or perform excessive weight bearing exercises.
Watch for signs of internal or external bleeding if you are taking blood thinners.
If you have swelling, pain, dizziness, or blurred vision, discontinue all exercise
and call your healthcare provider immediately.