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."

June 11, 2019 See more In-depth

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  6. Biopsy procedures
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  10. Cancer
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  12. Myths about cancer causes
  13. Infographic: Cancer Clinical Trials Offer Many Benefits
  14. Cancer diagnosis: 11 tips for coping
  15. Cancer diagnosis? Advice for dealing with what comes next
  16. Cancer-related fatigue
  17. Cancer pain: Relief is possible
  18. Cancer-prevention strategies
  19. Cancer risk: What the numbers mean
  20. Cancer surgery
  21. Cancer survival rate
  22. Cancer survivors: Care for your body after treatment
  23. Cancer survivors: Late effects of cancer treatment
  24. Cancer survivors: Managing your emotions after cancer treatment
  25. Cancer survivors: Reconnecting with loved ones after treatment
  26. Cancer treatment decisions: 5 steps to help you decide
  27. Cancer treatment delays due to COVID-19
  28. Safe cancer treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic
  29. Cancer treatment for men: Possible sexual side effects
  30. Cancer treatment for women: Possible sexual side effects
  31. Cancer treatment myths
  32. Cancer Vaccine Research
  33. Cellphones and cancer
  34. Chemo Targets
  35. Chemoembolization
  36. Chemotherapy
  37. Chemotherapy and hair loss: What to expect during treatment
  38. Chemotherapy and sex: Is sexual activity OK during treatment?
  39. Chemotherapy nausea and vomiting: Prevention is best defense
  40. Chemotherapy side effects: A cause of heart disease?
  41. Complete blood count (CBC)
  42. Cough
  43. CT scan
  44. CT scans: Are they safe?
  45. Curcumin: Can it slow cancer growth?
  46. Cancer-related diarrhea
  47. Eating during cancer treatment: Tips to make food tastier
  48. Fatigue
  49. Fertility preservation
  50. Get ready for possible side effects of chemotherapy
  51. Ginger for nausea: Does it work?
  52. Heart cancer: Is there such a thing?
  53. High-dose vitamin C: Can it kill cancer cells?
  54. Honey: An effective cough remedy?
  55. How plant-based food helps fight cancer
  56. Intrathecal chemotherapy
  57. Joint pain
  58. Joint pain: Rheumatoid arthritis or parvovirus?
  59. Low blood counts
  60. Magic mouthwash
  61. Medical marijuana
  62. Mediterranean diet recipes
  63. Mindfulness exercises
  64. Monoclonal antibody drugs
  65. Mort Crim and Cancer
  66. Mouth sores caused by cancer treatment: How to cope
  67. MRI
  68. Muscle pain
  69. Night sweats
  70. No appetite? How to get nutrition during cancer treatment
  71. Palliative care
  72. Palliative care
  73. PALS (Pets Are Loving Support)
  74. Pelvic exenteration
  75. PET/MRI scan
  76. Pet therapy
  77. Radiation therapy
  78. Routine cancer screening during coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic
  79. Infographic: Scalp Cooling Therapy for Cancer
  80. Secondhand smoke
  81. Seeing Inside the Heart with MRI
  82. Self-Image During Cancer
  83. Sentinel lymph node mapping
  84. Sisters' Bone Marrow Transplant
  85. Sleep tips
  86. Mediterranean diet
  87. Radiation simulation
  88. Small cell, large cell cancer: What this means
  89. Stem Cells 101
  90. Stem cells: What they are and what they do
  91. Thalidomide: Research advances in cancer and other conditions
  92. Treating pain: When is an opioid the right choice?
  93. Tumor vs. cyst: What's the difference?
  94. Ultrasound
  95. Unexplained weight loss
  96. Stem cell transplant
  97. How cancer spreads
  98. MRI
  99. PICC line placement
  100. Compassionate use
  101. When cancer returns: How to cope with cancer recurrence
  102. X-ray