Exercise & Cancer: What Patients Should Know

Exercise & Cancer: What Patients Should Know

Physical activity benefits nearly all aspects of our health. In fact, physical movement is crucial to counteract the adverse effects of sitting for prolonged periods of time due to our careers, lifestyle habits, or the natural aging process.

Some of the many benefits of physical activity include sharpening our thinking and judgment as we age, managing a healthy weight, and improving the strength of our bones and muscles.1

Physical exercise and cancer also share a close relationship, as movement and strength-building activities are pivotal in managing and preventing diseases. In this article, we’ll break down the benefits of exercise for cancer and recommend the best exercise methods to manage and improve cancer symptoms, as well as the side effects of cancer treatments.

Does Exercise Help Fight Cancer?

According to a scientific report by Angelo Rizzo, MS, PT, CLT, physical exercise has many benefits for individuals with cancer, including2:

  • Reduced severity of physical and psychological side effects
  • Improved function of cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems
  • Reduced health care costs
  • Improved quality of life
  • Prevention of pre-cancerous inflammatory markers

One of the most significant side effects related to cancer that exercise can relieve is fatigue. According to one cancer research study, 95% of patients receiving some form of chemotherapy or radiotherapy expect to experience fatigue during treatment3:

  • 76% of chemotherapy patients experience fatigue for at least a few days per month during their treatment
  • 30% of patients reported daily symptoms of fatigue during treatment

The National Comprehensive Cancer Center (NCCN) recommends exercise as the best nonpharmacologic treatment for cancer-related fatigue.2 The negative impacts of cancer-related fatigue include the inability to perform at a high level physically and mentally, as well as reduced quality of life.

Why is Exercise Important for Cancer Survivors?

We’ve already established physical activity as an all-around positive support for comprehensive physical and mental health. But physical activity also helps protect the body against the chronic health problems that can surface after surviving cancer.

Exercise creates a chemistry change that helps prevent lymphedema, enhances the uptake of medication and treatment, protects the heart and muscles from decreased strength and ease of movement, and so much more. The quality of sleep during treatment for cancer is correlated with exercise and activity, too.

Across all ages, cancer survivors face significantly higher rates of chronic illness, especially cardiovascular disease.4 Additionally, cancer survivors are twice as likely to develop psychosocial disabilities than individuals without cancer.2

Together, the physical and mental health issues that can develop after cancer can have a devastating impact on a person’s life. In fact, cancer survivors under the age of 65 are three times less likely to return to work due to chronic conditions caused by cancer.2

Fortunately, exercise can help rehabilitate an individual and mitigate the symptoms of their chronic illnesses, allowing them to return to work and relieve the financial and psychological duress typically felt after surviving cancer.What Exercise is Good For Cancer?

Regular exercise can be daunting for any individual, especially one who doesn’t have a history of being particularly active. But physical activity benefitting those with cancer often looks different than the stereotypes associated with very physically fit people, like running marathons, lifting hundreds of pounds of weight, or performing rock climbing or other adventurous sports. Regular physical activity can help cancer patient recovery and mental health regardless of the type of training.

The exercise guidelines the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recommends are simple: The goal for the cancer patient or survivor should be to include a healthy amount of aerobic exercise and strength training in their daily lives.7 These types of exercise are generally recommended for patients whose cancer has not spread beyond its original location.

Overall, the recommended exercise will depend on the cancer type. For example, individuals with skin cancer may need to avoid vigorous exercise outside and resort to indoor training. In contrast, those with ovarian cancer may freely exercise both indoors and outdoors with no restrictions.

Aerobic Exercise for Cancer

Aerobic exercise is any activity that heightens the function of your heart and lungs. Typical examples of aerobic exercise include walking, swimming, running, and dancing.

For aerobic exercise, try to aim for a moderate level of intensity rather than pushing yourself to your absolute limit. If you can’t speak more than a few words at a time while performing the exercise, you may be overexerting yourself.

Walking is an approachable and enjoyable form of aerobic exercise, especially if you have a relaxing, scenic park in your community or a walking partner to keep you company. Sports like basketball, tennis, or pickleball are also great for the dual purpose of socializing and keeping you active.

Cardio-related activity needs to be carefully planned and monitored, as the reaction to aerobic activity can be greatly impacted by chemotherapy and other treatments. The gold standard is 75-150 minutes of moderate activity per week during and following medical treatment.

Ultimately, the goal is to find an activity you enjoy and look forward to rather than something that feels like a chore.

Strength Training for Cancer

If your mental image of strength training involves buckling under a barbell stacked with dozens of heavy plates, fear not. Generally speaking, strength training is accessible to anyone and universally enjoyable, even for beginners.

While aerobic exercise typically benefits your cardiovascular system—fittingly referred to as “cardio” by many in the fitness world—anaerobic exercise or strength training primarily benefits the musculoskeletal system. Muscle strength is as important as cardiovascular health and is crucial for maintaining mobility, flexibility, and balance.

While weight training is an excellent option for building strength, other options may be a better fit for you based on equipment availability and your access to a gym. For instance:

  • Resistance bands are easy to use and can help train your muscles
  • Bodyweight exercises like squats, lunges, planks, and burpees require no equipment
  • Even household chores like pulling weeds or carrying groceries can build strength if you perform them routinely enough

Exercise Frequency and Cancer

How often is too often when it comes to exercise and cancer? While cancer patients should embrace physical activity to help mitigate their symptoms and treatment side effects, they should also take care to avoid overexertion.

A good target to strive for is 150 minutes per week, according to cancer experts at the University of Texas MD Anderson Center. 5There’s also plenty of flexibility in how individuals living with cancer can incorporate exercise into their lives. For example, you could exercise for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Or, you could exercise for an hour on one day and 15 minutes each other day of the week.

The type of exercise you perform each day doesn’t matter as long as you reach a weekly minimum of physical activity. If you prefer to perform more strenuous activity, like running, you can reduce the amount of physical activity to 75 minutes of intense activity per week.

How to Start an Exercise Routine with Cancer

Each case of cancer is different and requires a unique treatment plan. For this reason, there’s not one singular exercise routine for cancer patients that will be well-suited to everyone. Instead, when coming up with your personalized strategy and exercise program for increasing your movement, take the following steps to ensure success while minimizing risk:

  1. Discuss your physical exercise needs and capabilities with your doctor or your physical therapist. An individualized approach to preventing loss and optimizing function is needed, and a physical therapist can provide a comprehensive evaluation to start the process. They can help you evaluate your fitness level and recommend activities that will be the most beneficial for you.
  2. If you’re unsure how your body will tolerate exercise, start small. Performing even short durations of movement—like walking or taking the stairs—will help build your physical endurance and improve your overall health. As your tolerance for movement improves, you can increase the duration and intensity of your exercise in small amounts.

The Benefits of Physical Rehab Centers for Cancer

You don’t have to embark on your journey to improved physical health with cancer alone. A physical rehabilitation partner can offer many advantages when you’re training while simultaneously undergoing cancer treatment or making a return to full strength after recovery from therapy.

In particular, a physical therapist can work with you to develop a personalized plan to prevent or restore the damage done to your body by cancer or cancer treatment. Plus, each type of cancer may affect a different part of the body or group of body parts—therapists specialize in targeted exercises to improve function wherever you need it the most.

Returning to daily activities after or during a battle with cancer can initially feel impossible because chemo and radiation therapies tend to weaken and fatigue the patient. And although physical therapy for cancer patients will depend heavily on the cancer type, regular exercise and healthy living can help return to your former capabilities.

With rehabilitation physical therapy, patients can learn various strategies to employ at home and put in the necessary work with a therapist to master lost or diminished movement techniques.

Minimize Cancer’s Impact with Exercise at Ivy Rehab

At Ivy Rehab, we specialize in providing oncology rehabilitation for patients no matter which stage of treatment they’re currently facing. If you partner with us, a physical therapist can curate a plan specific to you, focusing on any of the four types of cancer-related care needed:

  • Preventative – Reduce your chances of losing function or developing an impairment from cancer.
  • Restorative – Stabilize and optimize all of your body’s critical functions to regain a healthy, regular lifestyle.
  • Supportive – Maximize your quality of life and minimize your loss of body control when faced with progressive disease.
  • Palliative – Maintain quality of life and offset the negative impacts of disease or treatments.

Ivy Rehab’s extensive network of outpatient therapy locations also supports all forms of cancer rehabilitation, from radiation fibrosis to family and caregiver education. We also communicate with your oncology team to ensure the right physical wellness plan and goals for your personal diagnosis.

To get started, find an Ivy Rehab location near you, and reach out today.



  1. CDC. Benefits of Physical Activity. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm
  2. National Library of Medicine. The Role of Exercise and Rehabilitation in the Cancer Care Plan. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5679055/
  3. The Oncologist. Cancer-Related Fatigue: The Scale of the Problem https://academic.oup.com/oncolo/article/12/S1/4/6395717#324126125
  4. Journals of Gerontology. Cancer Survivors in the United States: Age, Health, and Disability. https://academic.oup.com/biomedgerontology/article/58/1/M82/582413
  5. MD Anderson Center. Exercise during cancer treatment: 4 things to know. https://www.mdanderson.org/cancerwise/exercise-during-cancer-treatment–4-things-to-know.h00-159543690.html


The medical information contained herein is provided as an information resource only, and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultation with healthcare professionals. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-provider relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. IvyRehab Network, Inc. disclaims any and all responsibility, and shall have no liability, for any damages, loss, injury or liability whatsoever suffered as a result of your reliance on the information contained herein.