Exercise & CancerFrom Your Navigator

Stay Calm and Keep Moving

Staying active is one of the best ways to care for your health. In fact, during times of illness, a person’s activity level can predict how well they will recover. Sitting for a long time has been suggested as harmful to our health.
February 2017 Vol 3 No 1
Deborah Christensen, MSN, APRN, AOCNS, HNB-BC
Oncology Nurse Navigator
St. George, UT

Staying active is one of the best ways to care for your health. In fact, during times of illness, a person’s activity level can predict how well they will recover. Sitting for a long time has been suggested as harmful to our health.

In one study of 2,300 patients with colon cancer, patients who were sitting in a chair 6 hours during the day had more complications from treatment and a higher death rate than patients who moved more and spent less than 3 hours a day sitting in a chair.

The good news is that staying active doesn’t have to be strenuous or intense exercise. In fact, walking as few as 20 minutes every day is recommended before, during, and after cancer treatment. You can also break up the 20 minutes by walking for 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon. It is important to start at a level and amount of activity that leaves you feeling energized, not drained, and gradually build up your stamina.

Physical Activity

Physical activity helps your body keep muscle mass while fighting fatigue. Reducing stress through mindfulness activities such as deep breathing, visualization, positive affirmations, and even daydreaming are also beneficial during times of stress and illness.

According to the National Cancer Institute, “Physical activity is any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles; such movement results in an expenditure of energy. Physical activity is a critical component of energy balance, a term used to describe how weight, diet, and physical activity influence health, including cancer risk.”1

How to Include Physical Exercise While Coping with Cancer

Q. I don’t like to exercise, so what activities can I do?
If you’re like many people, the word “exercise” conjures up images of sweating away in a gym. But, by definition, exercise is either a physical or a mental activity done to improve one’s health. There need not be any gym involved at all.

The most important thing to remember is to do something you enjoy. For example, if you love shopping, go for a walk in the mall before the stores open. Do you enjoy a dip in the pool? Walking in water is a great way to tone muscles without worrying about falling. Basically, if you enjoy an activity, you are more likely to do it.

Q. What types of physical activities are considered safe during cancer treatment?
There are 3 principles to consider when determining what type of physical activity would be considered safe—intensity, frequency, and length of time spent doing the activity.

For example, running 4 days a week for 1 hour is very different from walking 5 days a week for 20 minutes. Playing 18 holes of golf 3 days a week versus 9 holes twice a week is another example of how to modify intensity and time.

Talk with your healthcare provider about what types of activity you currently do and what, if any, changes are needed.

Q. Are there any simple stress-reducing strategies?
Stress reduction should not be stressful! Here are some simple stress-reducing activities that can be done anytime, anyplace:

  • Take 2 deep breaths (in through the nose and out through the nose), followed by 1 deep breath (in through the nose and out through the mouth)
  • Breathe normally, while noticing what parts of your body move with the breath; this is a great technique to get out of the mind, by focusing on the body
  • Use your imagination to take you to a favorite spot, or daydream about redesigning your kitchen, or going someplace exotic
  • Listen to music that inspires you.

Stay Active

Above all, remember that you can remain active and reduce the stress and fatigue associated with cancer or with any other illness. Partner with your healthcare provider to find the right type of activity, and how often and vigorous you can safely do the activity, to help you live the healthiest life possible.


  1. National Cancer Institute. Physical activity and cancer. Accessed January 16, 2017.

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