Doctors encourage many people with cancer to exercise, because it is safe and can improve your physical condition and quality of life. Some cancers and treatments do not allow exercise, so it is important to consult a doctor before beginning or continuing an exercise program. In some cases, regular, moderate exercise can help people cope with the disease and the side effects of treatment.
Cancer and cancer treatments can make people feel tired and, in the past, people were often told to rest and reduce their physical activity. However, doctors now encourage many people with cancer to exercise, because it is safe and can improve their physical condition and quality of life. Exercise can help to reduce fatigue, depression and muscle weakening.
Exercise is usually permitted during and after treatment for cancer, but it must be medically safe to do so. It is not advised to exercise if you have certain cancers or treatments and, for this reason, you should always check with you doctor or oncologist (specialist cancer doctor) before beginning or continuing an exercise program. Do not exercise without your doctor’s knowledge and support, because inappropriate exercise may be harmful.
Exercise and cancer
Cancer and cancer treatments can bring about physical, mental and social issues that can affect your body and quality of life. Exercise programs can help you to cope with cancer and treatment, and have been shown to be safe, feasible and effective.
Your family may want you to rest all the time, but this may not be the best thing for you. Exercise if you are able to and if your doctor says it is safe.
Benefits of exercise may include:
- Increased muscle strength and endurance
- Increased energy and decreased cancer-related fatigue
- Improved bone density and range of motion of the joints
- Increased cardiovascular and respiratory function
- Lessened nausea and vomiting in some people on chemotherapy
- Improved appetite
- Deeper and more refreshing sleep
- Increased feelings of control over your life
- Improved digestion and reduced constipation
- Decreased levels of stress and anxiety
- Improved mood.
These benefits can help with your recovery and reduce the common side effects of treatment, such as fatigue, nausea, anxiety, depression and muscle weakness. Exercise and good nutrition can help you to create a healthy, active lifestyle and help you get back into daily life and work, with your colleagues, friends and family.
Exercise can help your body deal with cancer
Physical activity is linked with a decreased risk of certain cancers, in particular breast and colon cancer. However, even if you already have cancer, studies suggest that regular exercise can help your body to deal with the cancer and cancer treatment by:
- Boosting the immune system
- Encouraging the production of white blood cells
- Reducing the time spent in hospital (in some cases)
- In some cases, increasing survival rates in certain cancers (such as breast and colorectal cancers).
Types of exercise for people with cancer
If you have cancer and you are considering an exercise program, it is important to choose your exercise in consultation with your doctor, exercise physiologist, physiotherapist or occupational therapist.
Some types of exercise are easier than others. The exercise you choose will depend on the type of cancer you have, your current fitness level, your preferences, your long-term goals and the advice from your doctor.
Almost any type of exercise may be appropriate including:
- Walking, jogging, running
- Tai chi
- Weight training
- Team sports
General exercise guidelines for people with cancer
Once your doctor or oncologist has given you the go-ahead to exercise, it might also be a good idea to consult an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist before starting a new exercise program. These healthcare professionals provide screening and assessment, and will give you advice and guidance to ensure that your exercise program is safe and successful. Ask your cancer treatment team for a referral.
Pre-exercise screening is used to identify people with medical conditions that may put them at a higher risk of a experiencing a health problem during physical activity. It is a filter or ‘safety net’ to help decide if the potential benefits of exercise outweigh the risks for you. Print a copy of the pre-exercise screening tool and discuss it with your doctor or exercise professional.
Some general suggestions for exercising with cancer include:
- Begin with a light pace and low intensity rather than rushing into more intense activity. If treatment has left you weak or you are experiencing ongoing fatigue, you will require a slower and more gradual program. You might need to start with a few, short five to 10 minute light-intensity (gentle) exercise sessions per day.
- Build towards moderate-intensity exercise if you are having cancer treatment or if you have just finished treatment. Moderate intensity refers to the level of effort required to experience a change in your heart and breathing rate.
- Aim for between 15 and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per session in three to five sessions per week, depending on your current physical condition and the current phase of your treatment or recovery.
- Try to do some physical activity on most days, unless there are particular reasons why you should not exercise at all.
- Continue your exercise program if you were physically active before your diagnosis and treatment, as long as you have approval from your doctor. You may need to reduce the intensity, duration and frequency of the exercise.
- Do not force yourself to exercise when you feel exhausted. Instead, take a short stroll around the garden or do some stretches.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Exercise physiologist
- Hospital physiotherapist
- Hospital occupational therapist
- Cancer Council Helpline Tel. 13 11 20
- Peter McCallum Cancer Centre Tel. (03) 9656 1111
Things to remember
- If you have cancer and you are having treatment or have completed treatment, you should always consult a doctor before beginning or continuing an exercise program.
- Depending on your cancer or treatment, you might not be allowed to exercise.
- Physical activity can boost the energy levels for many people with cancer.
- Regular exercise improves the immune system and may help your body to deal with some cancer and cancer treatments.
- Aim for five to 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days of the week.
You might also be interested in:
- Cancer and food.
- Cancer and heredity.
- Cancer pain management.
- Exercise - everyday activities.
- Physical activity - it's important.
Want to know more?
Go to More information for support groups, related links and references.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
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Physical Activity Australia (formerly Kinect Australia)
Fact sheet currently being reviewed.
Last reviewed: December 2011
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