Physical Activity and Cancer


“Lack of activity destroys the condition of every human being, while movement and
methodological physical exercise save it and preserve it.”

Physical activity intersects with oncology in both the pre-diagnosis and
survivorship aspects. It is well known that physical activity plays a role in the
prevention of many cancers, as is the role of exercise in decreasing treatment side
effects, speeding recovery after a cancer diagnosis, and enhancing survival.

Regular Exercise is Associated with Decreased Cancer Risk

Epidemiologic data from 73 studies conducted around the world indicate a
25% reduction in the risk of breast cancer among the most physically active
women compared with those who are physically less active. Similarly, numerous
studies have established the protective role exercise plays in decreasing the risk of
many other cancers including lung, endometrial, colon, and possibly prostate

Exercise for Cancer Patients

When to Start

Studies show that after a cancer diagnosis, people slow down. Stress,
depression, and feeling sick or fatigued from cancer or its treatment all tend to
make people less active.

“As a long-term solution to the problem of fatigue, taking it easy and
avoiding activity is not a good solution”, says Courneya. “It is extremely important
for cancer survivors to get back to exercising to help their recovery”.

What to Do

Every person’s situation is different. Before starting a moderate to vigorous
exercise program, see your doctor.

The following types of exercise can help cancer patients- and everyone else –
get back in shape.

  • Flexibility exercises (stretching)
    Stretching is important to keep moving, to maintain mobility, says Doyle. If
    you’re not yet ready for more vigorous exercise, you should at least stay
  • Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, jogging and swimming
    This kind of exercise burns calories and helps you lose weight. Aerobic
    exercise also builds cardiovascular fitness, which lowers the risk of heart
    attack, stroke and diabetes.
  • Resistance training (lifting weights or isometric exercise)
    Many people lose muscle, but gain fat through cancer treatment. For those
    with a high fat-to-lean mass ratio, resistance training can be especially

How Much and How Hard

The American Cancer Society recommends at least 30 to 60 minutes of
moderate to vigorous exercise, at least 5 days a week, for the general population.

This amount of exercise is proven to reduce the risk of cancer,
cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Experts say it that it should also be beneficial
for cancer patients.

Unless you’re already very active, though, you shouldn’t expect yourself to
achieve this right away. As with anything else, the key is to set small, achievable
goals and build on your successes.

Try to find an activity you enjoy. You may want to buddy up with someone
at the same fitness level. Having a friend to work out with will increase your

Whatever you do, don’t get discouraged. Doing anything is better than doing

You can increase your physical activity without joining a gym, or even leaving
the house. Just building more activity into your daily routine can get you started.
Here are a few suggestions:

  • Take the stairs instead of riding the elevator.
  • Buy a pedometer and increase your number of steps daily.
  • Take frequent breaks throughout the day to stand, stretch and take short
  • Check the pantry. Lifting cans, detergent bottles, or anything heavy will
    build muscle. Do three sets of 10 lifts or lift until you feel your muscles
    getting tired.

What to Watch Out For

Exercise for cancer patients may carry a slightly higher risk for heart
problems. It is always a good idea to have a complete physical exam and get
approval from your oncologists before starting a moderate-to-vigorous exercise