By: Abdalla Sholi, M.D.
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center
While rest is always an important component of treatment and recovery, so is physical activity. After all, exercise has so many health benefits.
For years, physicians have recommended exercise to reduce the risk of developing cancer and to help cancer survivors thrive after treatment ends. But what about exercising during cancer treatment? Is it beneficial? Until recently, there were no recommendations.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recently issued the first-ever evidence-based exercise guidelines for adults in active cancer treatment.
Benefits of Exercise During Cancer Treatments
There is now good evidence that exercise, such as walking or structured exercise classes, can improve outcomes for cancer patients. In general, exercise can improve the body’s response to treatment, no matter the stage or type of cancer.
Specifically, there is strong evidence that exercise during cancer treatment can:
- Reduce anxiety and depression.
- Decrease fatigue.
- Improve balance to reduce your risk of falls.
- Boost quality of life.
- Prevent muscle loss and build strength.
- Reduce the risk of developing co-existing conditions, like heart disease and diabetes.
Exercise during cancer treatment may also improve sleep and bone health. In some studies, exercise has also been associated with better survival rates for certain cancers, including breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
Best Exercises 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 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, all the 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 actively undergoing treatment.
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.
Always talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program during or after cancer treatment. If you were physically active before treatment, you may or may not be able to follow the same exercise routine as before while you are receiving treatment.
After treatment, it will take time to return to your pre-cancer fitness level. Talk with your healthcare team about what exercise program is right for you. The cancer care experts at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center are always ready to answer your questions.
Abdalla Sholi, M.D., is the medical director of Medical Oncology at UPMC Hillman Cancer Centers in Coudersport, Wellsboro, and Williamsport. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is one of the largest integrated cancer networks in the U.S. To learn more, visit UPMC.com/CancerNCPA.