Exercise during cancer treatment can help improve physical and mental health, manage treatment side effects such as fatigue and nausea, and enhance overall quality of life.

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Cancer and its treatments can be tough on your body, causing fatigue, pain, and other physical challenges.

Incorporating exercise into your daily routine can improve strength, reduce stress, and enhance your overall well-being. In the long run, exercise can support your recovery, boost your immune system, and even reduce your chances of dying from cancer or experiencing a cancer recurrence.

During cancer treatment, health experts generally recommend focusing on low impact forms of exercise such as walking, light weightlifting, or gentle yoga, which can help improve your overall fitness level and reduce fatigue without putting too much strain on your body.

Here are some recommended types of exercise:

  • Aerobic exercise: Activities such as walking, cycling, and swimming can improve cardiovascular health, reduce fatigue, and boost energy levels.
  • Strength training: Light weightlifting and resistance band exercises can help maintain muscle mass and strength, which can decline during treatment.
  • Flexibility exercises: Stretching or yoga can improve range of motion, reduce stiffness, and enhance relaxation.
  • Balance exercises: Tai chi or balance training can improve stability and prevent falls, which is especially important if treatments affect your balance.

In general, it’s safe to exercise when you have cancer and during cancer treatment, but it’s important to consult your healthcare team before starting any exercise program.

A small 2023 study suggests that it’s safe to include exercise in your routine and that doing so can improve the chances of completing chemotherapy in people with breast, gastrointestinal, and pancreatic cancers. Exercising while undergoing chemotherapy can also help reduce the severity and frequency of chemotherapy-related side effects.

But if you’re experiencing lymphedema as a result of lymph node removal or treatment, it’s especially important to consult an exercise physiologist to ensure that your fitness plan won’t make the swelling worse.

Exercising after cancer treatment is highly recommended for many reasons.

A 2020 review of studies found that exercise significantly reduced the risk of mortality and cancer recurrence during and after cancer treatment.

A 2018 review also suggests that exercise can help you maintain muscle strength, manage weight changes, and improve overall health and quality of life during and after cancer treatment. It can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is particularly important when you’ve had cancer.

In a small 26-week study with 26 female participants who had completed cancer treatment, researchers found that both aerobic exercise (such as walking or using an elliptical machine) and resistance training (using weights or resistance bands) helped increase bone density in the spine, the hip, and the whole body.

These findings suggest a potential reduction in the risk of osteoporosis among people who have completed cancer treatment.

As always, it’s important to consult your healthcare team to find out whether exercise is safe and appropriate for your individual circumstances.

If you’re engaging in any form of exercise during or after cancer treatment, consider the following tips:

  • Consult your healthcare team before starting any exercise program.
  • Start slowly, and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts.
  • Listen to your body and adjust your exercise based on how you feel.
  • Include a mix of aerobic, strength, flexibility, and balance exercises.
  • Stay hydrated and maintain a balanced diet to support your energy levels.
  • Pay attention to any signs of discomfort or unusual symptoms and consult your healthcare team if necessary.
  • Be consistent with your exercise routine to maximize benefits.

According to a 2021 research review, exercise may help improve various cancer- and treatment-related health outcomes. For example, it may help:

  • reduce fatigue
  • enhance quality of life
  • manage anxiety and depression
  • maintain bone health
  • manage lymphedema
  • improve physical function
  • improve sleep quality

Another 2021 review suggests that being physically active — meaning engaging in any kind of movement that uses energy — after a cancer diagnosis is linked to better survival rates for cancer specifically and overall.

Exercise may improve cancer survival through three main pathways:

  • by directly affecting tumor growth
  • by improving treatment completion rates
  • by enhancing treatment effectiveness

A review of nine studies found that physical activity improves immune markers, quality of life, and cancer-related fatigue. The authors also noted lower levels of inflammatory markers and higher levels of natural killer (NK) cells.

Can exercise ease cancer treatment side effects?

In addition to improving many aspects of health and potentially reducing tumor growth, cancer can help improve many of the challenging side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

In a small 2019 study involving 38 women who were undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, participants took part in either endurance or resistance training sessions within the first week after treatment.

The researchers measured changes in common chemotherapy-related side effects such as low energy, stress, nausea, and pain immediately before and after each exercise session. They found that both types of training led to immediate improvements: Endurance training improved energy and reduced nausea, and resistance training improved energy, stress, and nausea.

These findings suggest that even a single exercise session can help relieve these side effects in people who are undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.

In a 2021 review of six studies, researchers looked at how exercise affected physical function and treatment-related side effects in men with prostate cancer who were undergoing radiation therapy. They found that exercise notably improved cardiovascular and muscle function and reduced urinary toxicity.

However, the authors noted that the effects of exercise on other side effects, such as intestinal or hormonal toxicity, depression, and sleep symptoms, were less certain and needed more research.

What type of exercise is best during cancer treatment?

During cancer treatment, the best types of exercise are generally low impact activities that are gentle on your body, such as:

  • walking
  • light weightlifting
  • yoga
  • tai chi
  • swimming

Can exercise help manage side effects of cancer treatment?

Exercise can help manage various side effects of cancer treatment, such as fatigue, nausea, pain, and emotional distress. It can also help you manage your weight and improve your quality of life during and after cancer treatment.

How soon after cancer treatment can I start exercising?

In general, it’s best to wait to exercise until you’ve recovered from surgery or from any acute side effects of treatment.

However, it’s important to be physically active as soon as possible after cancer treatment, as prolonged rest can lead to muscle weakness, loss of body function, and reduced range of motion. Your healthcare team can provide guidance on when it’s safe to start exercising.

Exercise is important during and after cancer treatment, as it can help reduce side effects, improve physical and mental well-being, and enhance your overall quality of life. It offers a proactive approach to managing your health during a challenging time and can promote a sense of empowerment and resilience.