If you’ve received a cancer diagnosis, you may feel a strong urge to curl up on the couch with a blanket and rest.
Or you may feel the urge to take a long run. To move your body and sweat and soak in as many benefits of exercise as possible.
While rest is always an important component of treatment and recovery, so is physical activity. After all, exercise has so many health benefits. Can it help during cancer treatment as well?
Patients often ask not just if they can exercise during chemotherapy, but if they should, as an additional form of treatment.
The short answer is yes. In fact, doctors are still learning about exercise during chemotherapy, often called exercise oncology.
What Is Exercise Oncology?
Exercise oncology is an emerging term among cancer doctors and researchers. It centers physical activity as a way to help treat cancer and better deal with cancer symptoms. It takes quite literally the notion that exercise is medicine.
Exercise oncology doesn’t mean exercising in lieu of chemotherapy or other treatments. It means exercising in addition to these cancer treatments.
Benefits of exercising during cancer treatments
There is now good evidence that exercise, such as walking or structured exercise classes, can improve outcomes for cancer patients.
Specifically, there is strong evidence that exercise during cancer treatment has these benefits:
- Reduced anxiety and depression.
- Less fatigue.
- Improved quality of life.
- Better perceived physical function (you feel stronger).
Exercise during cancer treatment may also improve sleep and bone health. Researchers hypothesize that it can also help with pain, nausea, sexual function, and cognitive function. But they are still gathering evidence about those outcomes.
Exercise may also help reduce your risk for developing lymphedema associated with breast cancer. (In the past, people have worried exercise might increase your risk for lymphedema, but it does not.)
As one of UPMC’s cancer physicians explains, when you exercise, you’re tapping into several things that help people feel better. First, you are moving your body and getting fresh air. You are also doing something positive, and you are doing something that helps you feel relaxed.
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Do Doctors Prescribe Exercise During Chemotherapy?
Despite all the benefits, the majority of cancer survivors and people living with cancer don’t get regular exercise.
In one study of more than 9,000 cancer survivors, researchers found that just 30% to 47% of people met the standard guidelines for physical activity. There are many reasons for this. But a big one may be that doctors aren’t overtly recommending it.
They either aren’t sure their patients can tolerate it, or they don’t fully know the benefits. This is why it’s so important to talk to your cancer treatment team about your goals. If you want to take a proactive, whole-person approach, exercise oncology may be right for you.
Getting Started with Exercise Oncology
If you’re already a regular exerciser, you may just continue to do the activities you already do, modifying as you need. But side effects from cancer treatment may affect your ability to move as you usually do.
For example, you may feel more tired or have uneven energy levels. This can create a barrier to exercise.
Instead of giving up, ask your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist or exercise physiologist who works with people receiving cancer treatment. A new program at UPMC Hillman, starting in 2023, will help patients get connected to exercise resources appropriate for their individual needs.
If you aren’t a regular exerciser and are trying to forge a new habit to augment your cancer treatment, your doctor can help. Again, you’ll want to get a referral to a cancer exercise specialist. The specialist can evaluate your health and fitness level and make recommendations.
You may benefit from a supervised exercise program. In fact, evidence suggests that many people get better outcomes when they exercise under supervision.
Remember to start slow, listen to your body, and exercise as you have the energy. This may mean skipping a day and opting for rest. It’s not all or nothing; it’s a process and you have to find what works best for you.
What Is the Best Exercise for Cancer Patients?
Doctors and exercise specialists have looked at what types of activities are best for people who have cancer. The American College of Sports Medicine has a program called Moving Through Cancer, which was developed by UPMC Hillman researcher Kathryn H. Schmitz, PhD, MPH. As part of this program, sports medicine experts have made recommendations about cancer and exercise.
These recommendations include guidance for aerobic activity and strength training during cancer treatment.
Aerobic activity during cancer treatment
If you’re new to exercise, the best advice is to keep it simple. Set a goal to build up to 90 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity as you go through treatment. This includes walking, light cycling, water fitness classes, or light laps.
In time, swap out moderate activity for more vigorous activity, like brisk walking, hiking up hills, swimming laps, or singles tennis. This type of activity gets your heart rate higher and is more efficient. Aim for 90 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week.
Remember that all minutes add up! You might find it easier to do 10 or 20 minutes a few times a day. This is especially true if you are activity undergoing treatment.
Strength training to build muscle during chemotherapy
Strength training is another key part of exercise oncology. You can use free weights, machines, resistance bands, or your own body weight.
This type of exercise builds muscle. The more muscle you have, the better able you might be to process chemotherapy drugs.
Increased muscle is also associated with better balance, less fatigue, and higher quality of life. Aim for resistance training two to three days a week — and take a day of rest in between.
If you’re new to weight training, consider taking a class at your local gym, YMCA, community center, or online. Working with a certified instructor or trainer can ensure you are doing strength training moves correctly.
Exercise is medicine in oncology: Engaging clinicians to help patients move through cancer. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. Link.
When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.