Staying Active During Cancer Treatment

February 19, 2019

Exercising during cancer treatment can give patients a boost.

Many patients wonder if they can—or should—exercise during cancer treatment. In a recent report by the American Cancer Society, a group of experts in nutrition, physical activity and cancer survivorship evaluated the scientific evidence and concluded that exercise is not only safe during cancer treatment, but also can improve quality of life in many ways. An American College of Sports Medicine roundtable on exercise guidelines for cancer survivors also concluded that exercise during cancer treatment is safe and can improve physical functioning, quality of life and cancer-related fatigue.

Mental Benefits

What to Know Before Beginning an Exercise Program

Nearly everyone can do some type of activity. But it’s important that patients keep in mind a few general precautions before exercising during cancer treatment.

Patients who were already active might have to slow down a bit during treatment and perhaps not exercise as intensely as before. They should assess how they feel and avoid pushing themselves. It’s important for patients to communicate with their health care providers about their planned physical activities.

People who were sedentary before diagnosis should start exercising slowly, adding more intensity and frequency as they are able. Patients should consider how active they were before treatment and adjust accordingly.

Side effects of treatment can determine the most appropriate type of exercise. For example, someone with neuropathy could have numb toes, which would make riding a stationary bike a better choice than walking on a treadmill. Patients experiencing lymphedema have long been discouraged from upper body strength training or vigorous activity, but a number of clinical trials have shown that not only are these activities safe for these individuals, they might actually reduce the incidence and severity of lymphedema. Patients must talk to their doctors to determine what is safe.

Patients who are undergoing frequent chemotherapy treatments could have lower immune function and should avoid working out in public places, such as gyms. People who are having skin reactions from radiation treatments and those with open wounds or catheters should avoid swimming in chlorinated pools.

An upper body port placement might necessitate temporarily avoiding upper body strength training. Patients with advanced disease who experience limitations due to bone metastases should discuss exercise with their health care providers and generally use pain or discomfort as a guide for what type of activity to avoid.

Physical Benefits

Overcoming Barriers

The bottom line: Avoid inactivity. Experts say any kind of activity helps. Studies show a significant benefit from simply walking three to five hours a week at an average pace. Walking is easy, cost-free and can be done just about anytime, anywhere. Patients should use good judgment when beginning exercise or continuing to exercise and should always discuss their plans with their doctors before starting.Some of the most important benefits of activity can be psychological. Being active gives patients a sense of self-control and helps with body image, self-esteem, anxiety and depression during treatment. Because exercise boosts endorphins, it’s recommended for healthy people who have mild to moderate depression and is known to decrease mild depression. It has the same effect in people who are undergoing cancer treatment.Exercise conveys a range of physical benefits, too. It helps combat fatigue, control weight gain and could help reduce the chance of recurrence of certain cancers. Other side effects of treatment that could be favorably influenced by exercise include nausea, deconditioning of heart and lungs and loss of muscle mass and bone strength. Studies show that exercise could help reduce the overall risk for breast, colon and other types of cancer, too.While there are plenty of reasons to exercise, some patients might need guidance and motivation in the beginning if exercising is new.

One challenge is learning how to deal with treatment-related physical limitations. Ironically, another is health care providers who might be hesitant to prescribe exercise since it wasn’t encouraged in the past.