Exercise guidelines for cancer patients and survivors

Fitness & Sports Health

by Ushma Shah, PT, DPT

Sep 5, 2022

It’s a well-known fact that regular exercise has several health benefits regardless of age, shape, size, ethnicity or co-morbidities. According to the US Health and Human Services, about $117 billion in annual healthcare costs and about 10% of premature mortality are associated with inadequate physical activity.

But did you know exercise can actually help you avoid cancer? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that being physically active lowers your risk of several cancers, including breast, colon, kidney and lung.

And if you’re a cancer survivor or currently undergoing treatment, physical activity can play a role in helping you avoid recurrence and manage side effects of treatment.

As a cancer survivor myself, I can attest that the physical and mental struggles are real. I can also attest that daily exercising in between treatments helped me personally and continues to benefit me today. Here’s what you need to know, from one cancer survivor to another.

How exercise can benefit women diagnosed with cancer

A study published in the Journal of National Cancer Institute noted,

“Women who engaged in regular physical activity before their cancer diagnosis and after treatment were less likely to have their cancer recur or to die compared to women who didn’t.”

In the study, women with breast cancer who met the recommended minimum physical activity guidelines both before diagnosis and at a two year follow-up after treatment had a 55% reduced chance of cancer recurrence and a 68% reduced chance of death from any cause (other than cancer) compared to ones who did not meet the guidelines.

Here are some of the benefits of exercise before, during and after cancer treatment.

  • Reduce treatment side effects
  • Improve energy level
  • Improve range of motion and muscle strength after surgery or radiation treatments
  • Improve bone health and decrease the risk of osteoporosis (as a result of chemotherapy and/or hormone blocking treatments)
  • Help manage depression and anxiety
  • Help maintain a healthy weight
  • Relieve breast cancer related lymphedema (swelling)
  • Improve quality of life

Guidelines for exercise during and after cancer treatment

Not sure where to start? Here are a few tips to help you exercise safely and effectively if you are currently undergoing treatment for cancer or have recently finished treatment. Be sure and check with your care team about your specific activity needs.

  • Avoid inactivity: aim to meet the minimum physical activity guidelines for adults (at least 2.5-5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity or 1.5-2.5 hours of vigorous intensity aerobic activity per week)
  • Start slowly and build up gradually
  • Walk up to 30 min at least three times a week. If this is feasible for you right now, start at 5-10 minutes a day and gradually increase as able
  • Include stretching exercises 2-3 times a week
  • Include strength training with either light weights or resistance bands at least two times a week

Exercise is medicine

Consider daily exercise as a “prescription” for life—one that you take to stay healthy and improve your odds of cancer survivorship. Exercising during and after chemotherapy, radiation or surgery may be hard, so give yourself some grace as you build strength and endurance.

For some people, exercise is not recommended during or after treatment, so check with your physician before you engage in any vigorous daily activity. If you are not sure where to start, ask your physician to refer you to a physical therapist who can help.

Find cancer support or physical therapy near you.

About the Author

Ushma Shah, PT, DPT is a physical therapist at Baylor Scott & White Roney Bone Joint Institute in Temple.

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