Is It Safe to Exercise With Cancer?

Is it safe to exercise with cancer? This is an important question. More and more studies are showing that exercise is an important part of healthy survivorship after cancer. But should you get started right away, during treatment? Or should you wait until after treatment is finished? You need to know whether it's safe to exercise with cancer before you get started.

Not only is it safe to exercise with cancer, health experts say it's a must. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) published the findings from a roundtable meeting of 20 organizations in the topics of cancer, fitness, exercise, and obesity. The panel was created by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

That report and subsequent research reviews have found that exercise provides benefits both during and after cancer. Exercise with cancer is safe and it is can help people cope with cancer and treatment-related side effects. Furthermore, exercise may improve survival after diagnosis too.

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Cancer Rehab

When a person has a heart attack or some other form of heart disease, he or she will undertake a program of cardiac rehabilitation (rehab). Cardiac rehab includes organized exercise programs, run by physical therapists and exercise physiologists. These exercise programs are designed to help people with heart disease recover and have a good quality of life.

Cardiac rehab also aims to reduce a person's risk of further heart disease-related health problems. This has been the standard of care for heart disease patients for decades. People affected by cancer deserve nothing less. Cancer centers need to develop a similar approach for cancer rehab.

Major Benefits

Exercise with cancer is safe, but are there any benefits to being physically active during and after cancer treatment? You bet! According to the experts, the benefits of exercise for cancer survivors are numerous.

Exercise can lessen fatigue, one of the most common complaints of patients undergoing cancer treatment. Exercise can help people sleep better and lessen the likelihood of insomnia during treatment. And exercise improves physical functioning in cancer survivors during and after treatment.

All of this adds up to significantly better quality of life for cancer survivors. With about 18 million cancer survivors in the US today, this is not a minor thing. This means a whole lot more well-functioning, and very likely happier, people.

What Type of Exercise and How Much?

For many cancer patients, doctors advise walking as a good way to get some exercise. Beyond walking, what and how much you should do depends on a number of things:

  • What your level of physical activity was before you were diagnosed with cancer
  • Other health conditions you have
  • The type of cancer you have
  • The type of cancer treatment you are undergoing
  • Symptoms and side effects you are experiencing
  • Whether you have had surgery recently
  • Whether you have experienced bone loss due to your cancer or its treatment
  • Whether you have a history of, or are being treated for, blood clots
  • Your age and gender
  • Other factors mentioned by your doctor or nurse

For example, if you were very active before your cancer diagnosis, there is a good chance you can keep up much of your usual exercise routine when you feel up to it. If you were not physically active before your cancer diagnosis, you should talk to your doctor before you begin an exercise program. You need to get the OK from your medical team that your exercise plan is appropriate for your current level of fitness.

Also, remember that other conditions you have, such as heart disease or diabetes, may affect the types and amount of exercise that are right for you. In general, walking is safe for most people. If you have not been physically active, short walks are a good place to start. But ask your doctor for more information and guidance before you begin.

When You Should Not Exercise

There are some situations in which it is not safe to exercise. Examples of times when it is not safe to exercise with cancer include:

  • Recent surgery: If you have had surgery, ask your doctor when you can begin exercising. Also, ask your doctor what types of exercise are safe, given your history of surgery.
  • Issues with blood clotting: If you are taking medications to manage coagulation (blood clotting), such as warfarin (Coumadin) or heparin, you may need to avoid certain types of exercise. Exercise that results in high impacts to your body, such as jogging, running, or basketball, may not be safe.
  • Bone loss: If your cancer or its treatment causes bone loss, or if you have tumors in your bones, exercise may not be safe for you.
  • Dizziness or extreme fatigue: If you suffer from dizziness or have very severe fatigue, exercise may not be safe for you. Ask your doctor for guidance.

These are some examples of when it is not safe to exercise with cancer. There may be others. If in doubt, always check with your doctor before beginning any new activity during cancer treatment.

The bottom line is that for most people with cancer, regular physical activity can help you feel better and live better, both during and after treatment.

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Article Sources
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  1. Campbell KL, Winters-stone KM, Wiskemann J, et al. Exercise guidelines for cancer survivors: Consensus statement from international multidisciplinary roundtable. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51(11):2375-2390. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000002116

  2. Mustian KM, Cole CL, Lin PJ, et al. Exercise recommendations for the management of symptoms clusters resulting from cancer and cancer treatmentsSemin Oncol Nurs. 2016;32(4):383–393. doi:10.1016/j.soncn.2016.09.002

  3. Schwartz AL, de Heer HD, Bea JW. Initiating exercise interventions to promote wellness in cancer patients and survivorsOncology (Williston Park). 2017;31(10):711–717.

Additional Reading
  • American Cancer Society. Nutrition and Physical Activity After Cancer Treatment.
  • American Cancer Society. Physical Activity and the Cancer Patient.
  • National Cancer Institute. NCI Cancer Bulletin. Guidelines Urge Exercise for Cancer Patients, Survivors.