Physical Exercise for Cancer

What is physical exercise?

Physical exercise involves movement of the body to achieve and maintain a healthy condition and state of physical fitness. People exercise for aerobic training, to increase strength, and/or to improve flexibility and fitness. Exercise is also used as therapy to restore the body to a state of health.

Can exercise help people with cancer?

Exercise is an effective activity for many people with cancer. Scientists are still learning about how physical activity helps cancer patients and what impact it has on the immune system. Too much inactivity could result in a loss of function. Most doctors agree that regular amounts of modest physical activity can benefit cancer patients.

Studies have shown that for some cancer patients regular physical activity can accomplish the following:

  • Improve aerobic fitness and muscle strength 

  • Reduce anxiety or depression

  • Reduce fatigue

  • Improve blood flow to the legs and reduce the risk of blood clots

  • Reduce pain

  • Reduce diarrhea and constipation

  • Prevent osteoporosis

  • Reduce the risk of heart disease

  • Increase overall physical functioning

  • Reduce dependence on others for the activities of daily living

  • Improve self-esteem

  • Lift mood

How does exercise work?

There is no specific amount of exercise suggested for a person with cancer. The type and amount of exercise that is appropriate for you depends on your unique abilities and what you can tolerate.

Overall, exercise should make your heart work harder than normal. It is important to be able to monitor your heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle fatigue. Members of your health care team--specifically your doctor and physical therapist--can show you how, and can help you choose the kinds of activity that will be most beneficial, including exercise to help you build endurance and strength, and keep your body flexible and functioning properly.

For cancer survivors, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends the following:

  • Stay active. All cancer patients should avoid inactivity. This even applies to people currently receiving treatment.

  • Keep the health team involved. The health care team and fitness professionals need to closely monitor the patient's exercise program and suggest the type and amount of exercise appropriate to the person's diagnosis. This helps patients avoid injuries and safely increase their activities as strength and endurance builds.

  • Aim for 150 minutes of exercise per week. When physically able, patients should follow the federal 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. This includes 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity.  

  • Adapt your exercise to your diagnosis. Types of exercise should be geared to the individual needs of the patient and consider specific diagnoses. For example, people with bone involvement may be told to avoid heavy weight bearing exercises that may result in fractures. Your health care team can help guide your exercise decisions. 

Your daily routine can also provide opportunities for exercise. Walking around your neighborhood after dinner, walking the dog, washing the car, and raking leaves are all activities that can help to build strength, maintain energy, and contribute to your overall well-being.

Are there any possible problems or complications associated with exercise?

Problems or complications are possible if you exercise at a level of exertion that is inappropriate for you. That is why it is important for you to plan an exercise program with your doctor.

Exercise, as an addition to your cancer treatment plan, has the potential to be pleasant and productive, but should not replace the care and treatment provided by your cancer care team. Always consult your doctor for more information.

Warnings regarding exercise

Do not exercise:

  • If your blood counts are low and you are at risk for infection, anemia, or bleeding.

  • If the minerals in your blood, such as sodium and potassium, are not normal (which is likely to be the case if you have been vomiting or having diarrhea).

  • If you are taking treatments that affect your lungs or heart, or are at risk for lung or heart disease. Instead, consult your doctor first, then watch for swollen ankles, sudden weight gain, or shortness of breath.

  • If you have unrelieved pain, nausea, vomiting, or other health concerns. Always consult your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

Precautions to consider as you exercise:

  • Do not overexert your body if you are taking blood pressure medication that controls your heart rate.

  • Do not hold your breath, as this may put a strain on your heart.

  • Do not exercise on uneven surfaces that could cause you to fall.

  • If you have bone disease, poor vision, poor balance, or weakness, do not use heavy weights or perform excessive weight bearing exercises.

  • Watch for signs of internal or external bleeding if you are taking blood thinners.

  • If you have swelling, pain, dizziness, or blurred vision, discontinue all exercise and call your doctor immediately.

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