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How to Get Exercise During Cancer Treatment

How to Get Exercise During Cancer Treatment

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21


During your cancer treatment, you’ll receive a lot of prescriptions from your medical providers—for medication, for nutrition, and for self-care. You may be surprised to get one additional prescription: Exercise. Experts agree that exercise is a key component of cancer treatment, as it bolsters physical and mental health, diminishes adverse side effects of treatment, increases feel-good hormones to help you feel happier and more relaxed, boosts anti-tumor activity in the body, and improves outcomes for survivors. An exercise routine can also provide a touchstone for self-care, where you can block off some “me time” for something that will make you happier and healthier.
Don’t worry—you won’t be expected to run a marathon or bench-press hundreds of pounds! When it comes to exercise, the prescription is pretty simple: 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular activity three times a week, plus two weekly sessions of strength work. You can hit those numbers with any activity that’s enjoyable for you, whether it’s lifting weights, taking a half-hour walk with the dog after dinner, or having a dance party with the kids. Some activities pull double duty as strength and cardio exercise, like hiking up your favorite mountain, yoga, and swimming laps.
Ready to run (or bike, or garden, or tai chi)? Here’s what you need to know about staying physically active during treatment.

Get the all-clear first

During your doctor’s appointment, explain the exercises you plan to do and ask about any possible limitations. You may need to make some changes depending on where you’re at in your treatment. For example, your doctor may warn against heavy lifting to protect your sutures after a surgery—or advise against high-risk areas for infection, like gyms, hot tubs, and yoga studios—if your immune system is compromised.

Work out for fun! 

If your workout makes you feel miserable, you probably won’t want to do it consistently. For a regular workout routine, stick to something you enjoy. If you’re not sure what type of exercise you want to do, experiment! Borrow a bike from your neighbor, go on a hike on a local trail, or get a trial pass for a fitness class that sounds like fun. A variety of free fitness apps and workout videos can also help you find an exercise routine that’s enjoyable, safe, and right for you.

Meet yourself where you are. 

If you were inactive before cancer treatment, start with short, low-intensity activity, such as short slow walks or a gentle yoga session. If you exercised before your diagnosis, you might find you need to exercise at a lower intensity during treatment, especially during periods of fatigue. This is okay! No matter where you are in your fitness journey, remember that your goal is not to #crushit, but to feel healthy and strong through your treatment.

Listen to your body

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Chemotherapy side effects can sometimes make exercising tough, but try to be as active as you’re able to be. If your energy level is low, adjust how long or how hard you exercise until you feel better. However, if you’re experiencing extreme fatigue, anemia (low red blood cell count), or a lack of muscle coordination (ataxia), skip your workout until you get the all-clear from your doctor. If you have neuropathy (pain or numbness from peripheral nerve damage) or tingling in your hands or feet from chemotherapy, take extra precautions to reduce your risk of falling or injury. These steps can include wearing sturdy athletic shoes, working out on a cushioned mat, and recruiting a spotter for certain activities.

Adapt your routine for your needs

Ask your doctor if there are ways exercise might be able to help alleviate side effects of your treatment. Tai Chi, for example, is often recommended for those who experience neuropathy, as it helps increase muscle strength and balance.

Drink up

Dehydration is a common side effect of cancer treatment. It’s also a common side effect of a sweaty workout. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, including during your workout, to ensure you’re staying hydrated.

Recruit a buddy

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Everything’s better with friends, and exercise is no exception. In addition to helping make the time fly by,research shows accountability to another person is a big factor in adhering to a movement regimen. When you’ve got a spouse, friend, or even a dog counting on you, you’re more likely to show up—even on those days you’re just not feeling it. One caveat: Your immune system. Especially if you’re currently immunocompromised, but even just in general, be sure to pick companions who are committed to your health and who you trust to stay home if they’ve been around a virus, etc.

Try something new

Just because you’re going through treatment doesn’t mean you have to stop having fun! Try something new, whether it’s a groovy-looking yoga video, an introductory rock-climbing lesson, or walking your first charity 5K. Many participating YMCAs also offer a free 12-week program for cancer patients and survivors to get coaching and free access to pool facilities. Taking a break from your regular routine will help refresh your body and mind. More importantly, conquering something new will help you see yourself for the strong, awesome person you are.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at support@jasperhealth.com.