Getting Enough Physical Activity During Cancer Treatment

When thinking about going through cancer treatment, you may picture being bedridden in the hospital. However, many people can go about their normal activities while they receive treatment. Being active may help boost your well-being while living with cancer.

Key takeaways:
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    While living with cancer, physical activity can help you feel better, reduce treatment-related side effects, and even help you live longer.
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    Each week, aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise as well as two weight-lifting sessions.
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    You’re more likely to see good results if you start with short, easy exercise sessions and gradually increase the intensity and frequency of your activity.
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    Talk to your doctor before exercising to make sure you’re sticking with activities that are safe for your individual health needs.

The benefits of exercise

While undergoing cancer treatments, physical activity may help you:

  • Feel better physically and mentally.
  • Experience better results from your treatments.
  • Manage treatment side effects like fatigue, insomnia, and brain fog.
  • Keep up with daily activities like doing chores around the house.
  • Experience a lower chance of having your cancer return or of being diagnosed with a new cancer.

When you’re more active, you also experience other health benefits. Exercise boosts your muscle and bone strength, enhances your sleep, improves your ability to think clearly, and helps ease anxiety and depression. Physical activity can also help you manage chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes or lower your risk of developing these conditions.

Exercise may also help you live longer. For example, people with breast cancer who are more active are 40% less likely to die from their condition. Those with prostate cancer who exercise cut their risk of dying from cancer by one-third.

Types of physical activity

There are a few different categories of exercise you may want to consider. Each may offer different benefits:

Aerobic exercise — This type of exercise makes you breathe harder and raises your heart rate. It boosts your fitness levels, which can give you more energy. Aerobic exercise can also help treat anxiety and depression and increase your sense of well-being. Walking is the simplest type of aerobic exercise. Other options include biking, swimming, playing tennis, taking cardio or aerobics classes, or using cardio equipment like an elliptical machine. You can also get more aerobic exercise throughout your day by choosing the stairs over the elevator or by walking instead of driving to a nearby location.

Strength training — Activities that involve lifting heavy objects are known as strength training or resistance training. These exercises can strengthen your muscles and bones, helping you keep up your strength as you go through treatments. Try working out with dumbbells or gym machines, or perform bodyweight exercises like push-ups and sit-ups that don’t require any equipment.

Stretching — These exercises can improve flexibility and balance, which may help prevent falls and enable you to keep up with your usual activities. They also encourage more blood to flow into your muscles. This may help you heal after treatments like surgery or radiation therapy that can lead to muscle damage or stiffness. You can find many stretching guides or videos online. Yoga is also a great way to stretch and build strength.

It’s much easier to stick with an exercise routine when you enjoy what you’re doing. For example, if you just don’t like running, then don’t force yourself to do it. Instead, try something else that feels better to you and seems like something you could stick with long term.

How much exercise should you get?

Experts recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week, performed at a moderate intensity. Moderate-intensity exercises include anything that makes your heart pump a little faster such as walking quickly, swimming, or doing yard work. Alternatively, you can aim for 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activities that get your heart racing, including running, dancing, or heavy gardening.

These aerobic exercise minutes can be split up however you want. For example, when aiming for 150 minutes of exercise, you could try being active for 30 minutes per day for five days per week.

Official guidelines also suggest doing strength training twice per week. These workouts should involve moving all of your major muscle groups.

It’s also a good idea to stretch whenever you’re performing other activities, as this can help prevent injury.

People going through cancer treatments can also follow these guidelines. However, if you currently aren’t exercising much, these goals may be challenging. Just remember, any activity is better than no activity!

Think slow and small

Don’t try to jump into a brand-new exercise routine all at once. You may be able to keep up with it for a short time, but it’s very difficult to build long-lasting habits this way. Additionally, doing too much too quickly can lead to injuries.

Start small by doing an activity that feels easy to you. For example, you could walk around the block, or simply to the end of your driveway and back. You could also try lifting an object you have lying around such as a bottle of water. Over time, slowly increase how often you do this activity, or try adding on additional movements.

A simple goal may be to start tracking how much time you spend being active throughout the day. You can track this yourself with a pen and paper, or use a fitness tracker or smartwatch. Gradually increase your active time until you’re spending 30 minutes per day moving around.

Exercising safely

Certain movements or types of activities may not be a good fit for you, depending on which treatments you are receiving or whether you have other health problems. Talk to your doctor before exercising if you have recently had surgery or if you have an ostomy, weakened bones, balance problems, or heart disease.

If cancer treatments have weakened your immune system, it may be better to work out at home or outside. Shared equipment at a gym often contains a lot of germs.

Before starting a new activity plan, ask your cancer care team whether exercise is safe, how active you should aim to be, and whether there are certain types of exercises you should avoid.

Getting started

If exercise is safe for you, start with a simple activity like walking or jogging. You can also take an exercise class through a local community center or YMCA, search for classes online, or try an app that guides you through an exercise routine.

For extra guidance, you may want to work with a personal trainer or physical therapist who has experience working with cancer patients. These experts can help you safely and effectively boost your health through exercise.

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