Exercises for the Person with Cancer

Lora Packel, MS, PT
Copyright © Lora Packel, MS, PT
Last Modified: October 8, 2012

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Disclaimer: You should discuss your health risks with your physician before starting any exercise program.

Why should I exercise?

Exercise is an important part of your care. Exercise can help you deal with the side-effects of cancer treatment. Once treatment has ended, exercise can help you live a healthier life.

Exercise During Treatment

Exercise can help with many things during cancer treatment such as:

  • Poor sleep
  • Low energy
  • Nausea or feeling sick to your stomach
  • Feeling nervous or sad

It is important to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program during your cancer treatments, as there may be some days when you shouldn't exercise.

Some reasons that you may not be able to exercise are:

  • Low platelet counts that may cause you to bruise easily
  • Low hemoglobin counts (Anemia)
  • Trouble with your balance
  • Fever

Exercise After Treatment Has Ended

Exercise is important for your recovery and health. Exercise after treatment has ended can help you to:

  • Feel stronger
  • Have more energy
  • Be able to do more without feeling winded
  • Build a stronger heart
  • Concentrate or feel less 'foggy'
  • Sleep better
  • Feel happier
  • Manage your weight

For people with breast cancer or colon cancer, exercise may help prevent your cancer from coming back.

What Kind of Exercise Should I Do?

There are two kinds of exercise; aerobic exercises and strengthening exercises.

Aerobic exercise helps to strengthen your heart, give you more energy, help with feelings of sadness and can help you sleep better.

Types of aerobic exercise are:

  • Walking
  • Biking
  • Gardening
  • Jogging
  • Dancing
  • Jumping rope
  • Swimming

Strengthening exercises help you feel stronger and help to keep your bones strong.

Types of strengthening exercises are:

  • Lifting weights
  • Doing leg lunges                    
  • Sit ups
  • Pilates
  • T'ai Chi

It is good to do both aerobic and strength exercises. You should start with aerobic exercises and slowly add in strength exercises.

See this article for pictures of strengthening exercises.

How Do I Get Started?

1. Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

2. Set goals. Think about a goal that you can reach in one month and then think about a goal that you can reach in six months.

Make goals that you can reach! Examples of goals are:

  • I will walk after dinner with my family 3 days a week
  • I will use the stairs, not the elevator
  • I will work in my garden for 10 minutes each day
  • After treatment ends, I will walk for 15 minutes each day
  • After treatment ends, I will play with my grandchildren two times each week

3. Make a list of reasons that you might not exercise and how you will deal with them.


I might feel tired from my treatment

  • I can take a day off from exercise, but I will start again the next day.

I might feel sick to my stomach (nausea)

  • I will try to exercise a little to see if it helps with my nausea.

I am too busy going to see my doctors.

  • Schedule exercise into your day.
  • Put the schedule on your fridge.
  • Put your sneakers in the car so that you can walk anywhere!

I am too sad to exercise

  • Get a walking partner. You are more likely to exercise if someone goes with you.
  • I will talk to my doctor about feeling sad.

4. Be kind to yourself. It is okay to miss a few days of exercise. Don't punish yourself for a 'bad week.' Get back to your exercise as soon as you can.

5. Reward yourself for a good week! Think about something you like and do it (or buy it).

  • Buy a new book
  • Visit a friend
  • Go see a new movie

6. Get support.

People who have exercise partners are more likely to stick with their program.

  • Exercise with a friend or with family.
  • Join an exercise program for people with cancer. It is important to be with people who know what you are going through.
    • Ask your cancer center about people who have training in exercise for the person with cancer
    • Call the American Cancer Society and ask about exercise programs. You can visit their website at: www.cancer.org
    • Call the Wellness Community for local exercise and support groups. You can visit their website at: www.thewellnesscommunity.org
    • Call the American Physical Therapy Association to find a physical therapist that knows about exercise, cancer and cancer treatments. You can visit their website at: www.apta.org and click on 'Information for Consumers'

7. How to start aerobic exercise.

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