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Exercise During Cancer: Getting Started

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By Nancy Campbell, MS

“How soon can I start exercising after I start cancer treatment?” It’s a question I hear often from patients who visit me for a fitness consult or class at Dana-Farber.

My answer? “As soon as possible.”

While it may seem counterintuitive, exercise offers key benefits for cancer patients – even those undergoing difficult treatments. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to give yourself an extra boost during and after cancer treatment.

Physical activity helps lower your stress, improve your sleep patterns, and elevate your mood. Something as simple as walking briskly around the block a few times can help you feel better both physically and emotionally. And, because exercise can help ensure you get a good night’s sleep, it helps combat fatigue – a common complaint among those undergoing cancer treatment.

Exercise physiologist Nancy Campbell holds classes for cancer patients.

Creating a fitness routine doesn’t need to involve a dramatic change. In fact, adding exercise to your daily routine can be simple, especially if you focus on small steps to make your day more active.

Here are some tips for getting started.

Check with your doctor. Make sure your exercise plan won’t interfere with your treatment or recovery. For example, if you’ve had surgery, it may take some time for wounds to heal before you should start exercising. Or, if you’re experiencing lymphedema (swelling) as a result of lymph node removal or treatment, you’ll want to make sure your exercise plan won’t make the swelling worse.

After you get signoff from your health care team, consider what exercise types might work best for you. Some options to consider:

  • Flexibility exercises, such as yoga or stretching. No matter what your treatment regimen, it’s likely that you can find a flexibility exercise that will work for you. Maintaining your mobility can help ensure that you’ll be ready to move on to more vigorous exercise.
  • Aerobic exercise, such as running, swimming, or brisk walks. Aerobic exercise is key because it helps you burn calories and lose weight. It also builds cardiovascular fitness, which can lower your risk of health problems like heart attack and diabetes. If you have balance problems, try exercises that are less likely to make you fall, such as riding a stationary bicycle.
  • Resistance exercises, such as lifting weights. These can help build muscle, which is helpful because it’s not uncommon for people to lose muscle (and add fat) during cancer treatment.

Ideally, your routine should include both aerobic and resistance exercises, because these will help you build muscle and increase your stamina, which can help improve your overall health.

No matter what types of exercise you decide to pursue, be sensible. Know your limits, and start out slowly. Short bouts of physical activity on most days of the week are more beneficial than the occasional exhausting workout. Build up your strength and endurance little by little. In the beginning, regularity is the key.

Nancy Campbell, MS, is an exercise physiologist who offers fitness consults and classes to cancer patients and survivors through Dana-Farber’s Adult Survivorship Program. She’s previously written about exercise tips for cancer patients and survivors.

Courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

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