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Your secret weapon during cancer treatment? Exercise!

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jun 1, 2021.

The evidence keeps rolling in: Exercise can be one of your most important cancer treatments. For anyone dealing with a cancer diagnosis, that's great news. Starting — or maintaining — an exercise program can empower you to move out of a more passive "patient" role; it'll help improve not just your well-being but your attitude, too.

Sara Mansfield, M.S., a certified cancer exercise trainer at Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, says physical activity can help people before, during and after cancer treatment. "Loving family members may be urging a person with a cancer diagnosis to rest," she says, "but that can lead to a functional decline. Research tells us, in general, it's better to move more than less."

Mansfield recommends that any person with cancer first discuss an exercise program with his or her health care provider. Once you've got the green light, she says, start moving. If you've been sedentary for a while, start walking, which will help build muscle and stamina.

Exercise benefits

Many research studies support the idea that exercising during cancer treatment helps you feel better. Some of the documented benefits include:

  • Reduced depression and anxiety
  • Increased energy and strength
  • Reduced pain

Worried that it might not be safe? There's evidence to the contrary. For instance, when researchers reviewed 61 studies involving women with stage 2 breast cancer, they found that a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise was not only safe, it also improved health outcomes.

Other studies have found that exercise during treatment can actually change the tumor microenvironment and trigger stronger anti-tumor activity in your immune system. And very recent animal studies have found that exercise can lead to tumor reduction in rodents.

Physical activity also helps you manage your weight, which is an important cancer risk factor. In fact, research has linked being overweight or obese to an increased risk of many types of cancer, including endometrial, esophageal, liver, pancreas and breast cancers. There's also increasing evidence that being overweight may lead to a higher risk of cancer recurrence and even cancer-related death.

All those health benefits associated with exercise during cancer treatment sound good, right? So maybe it's time to get started.

Exercise guidelines

The physical activity guidelines for people with cancer are similar to those recommended for everyone: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity every week. Not quite ready for that level of exercise? Follow Mansfield's recommendations:

  • If you can't start at 150 minutes a week, be as active as you are able.
  • Once cleared to do so by your surgeon, return to normal daily activities as quickly as possible after surgery.
  • Do some kind of resistance training (weightlifting, resistance bands) at least twice a week.
  • Stay flexible with regular stretching.
  • Incorporate balance exercises into your daily routines.

One thing Mansfield emphasizes is that researchers are actively focused on studying the benefits of exercise for people with cancer and cancer survivors. Researchers are learning more every day. And, she says, it's getting easier to find cancer exercise trainers certified by the American College of Sports Medicine who specialize in working with both people undergoing cancer treatment and cancer survivors.

"Your treatment may have left you feeling like you have a different body," says Mansfield, "but you can take charge after this life-changing event and really improve your quality of life."

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