Exercise & Cancer

Empowerment Through Exercise: How Physical Activity Benefits Patients with Cancer

Exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of a wide range of chronic diseases, and is beneficial during and after cancer treatment to maintain patients’ physical and emotional well-being.
Web Exclusives – August 21, 2020

Extensive research has shown that regular exercise can reduce the risk of a wide range of chronic diseases, from type 2 diabetes to osteoarthritis, and potentially even cancer. However, have you considered how exercise can be beneficial if you’ve already been diagnosed with cancer and are undergoing treatment? If you’ve completed your cancer treatment, what role can exercise play in restoring and maintaining your physical and emotional well-being?

Many patients with cancer, as well as cancer survivors, have reservations about exercise. You may wonder if your body can handle it, and if any additional strain on your body will increase your risk of health problems. Given the state of the COVID-19 pandemic and the sweltering summer weather, you may question if exercise in certain settings is safe.

Although these concerns are natural, given the stress associated with cancer, the human body is designed to be in motion. Physical activity is a natural function with countless health benefits. By contrast, sitting for extended periods of time, for example, can increase the risks of obesity, back and neck pains, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and other health problems.

The best thing that patients with cancer and cancer survivors can do is take better care of themselves. Research has shown that among the most effective ways to improve your physical condition are to stay active and to exercise.

Exercise and Cancer Treatment Go Hand in Hand

The benefits of starting or maintaining an exercise regimen during cancer treatment are as much psychological as they are physical. In addition to improving how you feel and function, exercise can put you in a more positive frame of mind that empowers you to take a more active role in your health. Exercise is also a healthy, productive way to stay busy and overcome feelings of boredom and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By building stamina and muscle, you can increase your energy and strength and reduce pain, which can make certain phases of treatment less challenging from a physical standpoint. One study showed that regular exercise reduced fatigue, which is the top complaint during cancer treatment, by 40% to 50%. In fact, many doctors recommend exercise as an additional therapy for patients who are undergoing cancer treatment.

Research has shown that exercise during and after cancer treatment can:

  • Prevent obesity
  • Reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Reduce high insulin levels
  • Reduce reliance on medication
  • Improve immune system function
  • Improve digestive system function to limit exposure to carcinogens
  • Improve bone health
  • Improve quality of sleep

Multiple research studies suggest that patients with breast or colorectal cancers who exercise reduce their risk of death from cancer and other causes. Physically active breast cancer survivors had a 42% lower risk of death from any cause and a 40% lower risk of death from breast cancer than patients who were the least physically active. Patients with colorectal cancer who are physically active after a cancer diagnosis can reduce the risk of death from cancer by 30% and reduce the risk of death from any cause by 38%.

Some studies have also linked exercise to better outcomes for patients with prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, stomach cancer, and malignant glioma.

Cancer survivors should also make exercise part of their lifestyle. A 2018 report from the American College of Sports Medicine International Multidisciplinary Roundtable on Physical Activity and Cancer Prevention and Control showed that exercise is generally safe for cancer survivors, and is recommended to maintain a high quality of life and reduce further cancer risk.

Personalize Your Exercise Program

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which were released in 2018, recommend 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 to 100 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or an equivalent combination of intensity each week, as well as muscle-strengthening activities and balance training.

You may not be ready for that level of exercise, and that’s okay. Trying to do too much physical activity too quickly increases the risk of injury and keeps you from taking advantage of the benefits of exercise.

Your exercise program should be based on your physical condition and should be customized by a certified exercise physiologist or physical therapist. For example, if you’re dealing with another chronic condition, such as asthma or osteoporosis, the right exercise program may reduce the risk of aggravating these conditions.

Finally, exercise safely with today’s reality in mind. To avoid the risk of exposure to COVID-19, exercise in your home or outdoors. Clean, fresh air is great for your lungs. Just make sure to exercise in wide-open areas and maintain a proper social distance. If you exercise outdoors, do so during early-morning or evening hours to avoid the hottest temperatures.

The earlier that you start exercising, the sooner you can start to see its benefits. The longer that you maintain physical activity, the better you can start to feel. Talk to your doctor about the benefits of exercise before and after cancer treatment, and ask for help getting started with an exercise program that is right for you.


  • Mayo Clinic
  • Mayo Clinic
  • National Cancer Institute
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network

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Last modified: August 21, 2020

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