Exercise During and After Cancer Treatment

Author: Lora Packel, PhD, PT
Content Contributor: Chair & Associate Professor, Department of Physical Therapy at the University of the Sciences
Last Reviewed: January 30, 2019

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

Why should I exercise?

Exercise is an important part of cancer care during and after treatment. It has many benefits and should be a part of your treatment plan no matter your type or stage of cancer.

Exercise During Treatment

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

  • Poor sleep.
  • Low energy (fatigue). 
  • Nausea or feeling sick to your stomach.
  • Feeling nervous or sad.
  • Weakness.

It is important to check with your provider 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.
  • Very low hemoglobin counts (anemia).
  • Trouble with your balance.
  • Fever.
  • Cancer that has affected your bones. 

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.
  • Improve your strength. 
  • Improve quality of life.

For people with breast, endometrial 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, manage your weight, and can help you sleep better. Aerobic exercise involves any activity that raises your heart rate over a sustained period of time.

Types of aerobic exercise are:

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

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

Types of strengthening exercises are:

  • Lifting weights.
  • Doing leg lunges.
  • Sit ups.
  • Pilates.
  • T'ai Chi.
  • Some types of yoga.

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 provider 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 are realistic given your present health and treatment plan.

Examples of goals are:

  • I will walk after dinner with my family 3 days a week at a fast pace.
  • I will use the stairs, not the elevator
  • I will work in my garden for 10 minutes each day
  • I will walk for 15 minutes each day for a month and then add five minutes to my walking time
  • I will play active games with my grandchildren two times each week

3. Learn a variety of exercises. Each exercise uses muscles in a particular way, so adding in variety increases the chances that you are exercising a variety of muscles.  Take a new class at the gym or try a community program.  If you are uncertain about the class, see if they have lessons for beginners or free sessions that would enable you to try it out.  Building confidence with exercise is an important part of building the habit of exercise into your life. 

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

Examples:

I might feel tired from my treatment

I will walk for shorter period of time, sit on a bench, and then try walking again.  

I am too exhausted

I know exercise gives me energy, so I will make an exercise date with a friend to motivate me to follow through.

I am too busy going to see my providers.

I will put exercise on my schedule just like I would a meeting and stick to it.

I will do some exercises while in the waiting room.

I will put sneakers in my car so I am ready to walk whenever I get a short break.

I am too sad to exercise

I will get a walking partner so I can have someone to talk to and get exercise at the same time.

I will talk to my provider about feeling sad.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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 also visit their website at: www.apta.org and click on 'Information for Consumers'.

8. How to start aerobic exercise.

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