Your secret weapon during cancer treatment? Exercise!

Don't stop moving. Research confirms that exercising can help you not just survive but thrive during and after cancer.

The evidence keeps rolling in: Exercise can be one of your most important cancer treatments. For anyone dealing with a cancer diagnosis, that's great news. Starting — or maintaining — an exercise program can empower you to move out of a more passive "patient" role; it'll help improve not just your well-being but your attitude, too.

Sara Mansfield, M.S., a certified cancer exercise trainer at Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, says physical activity can help people before, during and after cancer treatment. "Loving family members may be urging a person with a cancer diagnosis to rest," she says, "but that can lead to a functional decline. Research tells us, in general, it's better to move more than less."

Mansfield recommends that any person with cancer first discuss an exercise program with his or her health care provider. Once you've got the green light, she says, start moving. If you've been sedentary for a while, start walking, which will help build muscle and stamina.

Exercise benefits

Many research studies support the idea that exercising during cancer treatment helps you feel better. Some of the documented benefits include:

  • Reduced depression and anxiety
  • Increased energy and strength
  • Reduced pain

Worried that it might not be safe? There's evidence to the contrary. For instance, when researchers reviewed 61 studies involving women with stage 2 breast cancer, they found that a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise was not only safe, it also improved health outcomes.

Other studies have found that exercise during treatment can actually change the tumor microenvironment and trigger stronger anti-tumor activity in your immune system. And very recent animal studies have found that exercise can lead to tumor reduction in rodents.

Physical activity also helps you manage your weight, which is an important cancer risk factor. In fact, research has linked being overweight or obese to an increased risk of many types of cancer, including endometrial, esophageal, liver, pancreas and breast cancers. There's also increasing evidence that being overweight may lead to a higher risk of cancer recurrence and even cancer-related death.

All those health benefits associated with exercise during cancer treatment sound good, right? So maybe it's time to get started.

Exercise guidelines

The physical activity guidelines for people with cancer are similar to those recommended for everyone: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity every week. Not quite ready for that level of exercise? Follow Mansfield's recommendations:

  • If you can't start at 150 minutes a week, be as active as you are able.
  • Once cleared to do so by your surgeon, return to normal daily activities as quickly as possible after surgery.
  • Do some kind of resistance training (weightlifting, resistance bands) at least twice a week.
  • Stay flexible with regular stretching.
  • Incorporate balance exercises into your daily routines.

One thing Mansfield emphasizes is that researchers are actively focused on studying the benefits of exercise for people with cancer and cancer survivors. Researchers are learning more every day. And, she says, it's getting easier to find cancer exercise trainers certified by the American College of Sports Medicine who specialize in working with both people undergoing cancer treatment and cancer survivors.

"Your treatment may have left you feeling like you have a different body," says Mansfield, "but you can take charge after this life-changing event and really improve your quality of life."

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June 11, 2019 See more In-depth

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  2. Adjuvant therapy for cancer
  3. After a flood, are food and medicines safe to use?
  4. Alternative cancer treatments: 11 options to consider
  5. Atypical cells: Are they cancer?
  6. Biological therapy for cancer
  7. Biopsy procedures
  8. Blood Basics
  9. Bone marrow transplant
  10. Bone scan
  11. Cancer
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  13. Myths about cancer causes
  14. Infographic: Cancer Clinical Trials Offer Many Benefits
  15. Cancer diagnosis: 11 tips for coping
  16. Cancer diagnosis? Advice for dealing with what comes next
  17. Cancer-related fatigue
  18. Cancer pain: Relief is possible
  19. Cancer-prevention strategies
  20. Cancer risk: What the numbers mean
  21. Cancer surgery
  22. Cancer survival rate
  23. Cancer survivors: Care for your body after treatment
  24. Cancer survivors: Late effects of cancer treatment
  25. Cancer survivors: Managing your emotions after cancer treatment
  26. Cancer survivors: Reconnecting with loved ones after treatment
  27. Cancer treatment
  28. Cancer treatment decisions: 5 steps to help you decide
  29. Cancer treatment myths
  30. Cancer Vaccine Research
  31. Cellphones and cancer
  32. Chemo Targets
  33. Chemoembolization
  34. Chemotherapy
  35. Chemotherapy and hair loss: What to expect during treatment
  36. Chemotherapy and sex: Is sexual activity OK during treatment?
  37. Chemotherapy nausea and vomiting: Prevention is best defense
  38. Chemotherapy side effects: A cause of heart disease?
  39. Complete blood count (CBC)
  40. Cough
  41. CT scan
  42. Curcumin: Can it slow cancer growth?
  43. Cancer-related diarrhea
  44. Eating during cancer treatment: Tips to make food tastier
  45. Fatigue
  46. Fertility preservation
  47. Get ready for possible side effects of chemotherapy
  48. Ginger for nausea: Does it work?
  49. Heart cancer: Is there such a thing?
  50. High-dose vitamin C: Can it kill cancer cells?
  51. Honey: An effective cough remedy?
  52. How plant-based food helps fight cancer
  53. Infographic: CAR-T Cell Therapy
  54. Intrathecal chemotherapy
  55. Joint pain
  56. Low blood counts
  57. Magic mouthwash
  58. Medical marijuana
  59. Mediterranean diet recipes
  60. Mindfulness exercises
  61. Minimally invasive cancer surgery
  62. Monoclonal antibody drugs
  63. Mort Crim and Cancer
  64. Mouth sores caused by cancer treatment: How to cope
  65. MRI
  66. Muscle pain
  67. Needle biopsy
  68. Night sweats
  69. No appetite? How to get nutrition during cancer treatment
  70. Palliative care
  71. PALS (Pets Are Loving Support)
  72. Pelvic exenteration
  73. PET/MRI scan
  74. Pet therapy
  75. Radiation therapy
  76. Infographic: Scalp Cooling Therapy for Cancer
  77. Seeing inside the heart with MRI
  78. Self-Image During Cancer
  79. Sentinel lymph node mapping
  80. Sisters' Bone Marrow Transplant
  81. Sleep tips
  82. Mediterranean diet
  83. Radiation simulation
  84. Small cell, large cell cancer: What this means
  85. Stem Cells 101
  86. Stem cells: What they are and what they do
  87. Thalidomide: Research advances in cancer and other conditions
  88. Tumor vs. cyst: What's the difference?
  89. TVEC (Talimogene laherparepvec) injection
  90. Ultrasound
  91. Unexplained weight loss
  92. Stem cell transplant
  93. How cancer spreads
  94. MRI
  95. PICC line placement
  96. When cancer returns: How to cope with cancer recurrence
  97. Wide local skin excision
  98. X-ray