Do you know cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide? Almost 1.9 million cases are expected to be diagnosed this year. And we all know how challenging it is to get through tumor treatment and chemotherapies.
That’s where exercise comes in. Not only does it make it easier for you to survive this disorder, but also regular workout lowers the risk of cancer. Curious? Read on to know how exercise benefits cancer and how much you need it.
How Does Exercise Help Manage Cancer?
While dealing with the shock of newly diagnosed cancer, exercise can be the last thing on your mind. However, it’s the right time to take action.
Knowing how it affects your health can motivate you for a daily workout. So, let me take you through some benefits of regular exercise on cancer.
Lower anxiety and depression
Your body goes through a lot during cancer therapy. It’s literally like a battlefield where soldiers (cancer cells and drugs) are fighting against each other to gain victory.
During such hard times, you are more likely to become a victim of anxiety and depression. In fact, a study shows that the prevalence rates for anxiety and depression in cancer patients are 60% and 58%, respectively.
Being in such a poor mental state can affect your body’s ability to cope with the disorder. However, doing regular exercise can enhance your willpower.
Research shows it releases feel-good hormones, such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals boost the feeling of well-being and take your mind off the negative thoughts.
Reduce treatment related fatigue
You often feel tired even at rest during cancer treatment. Sometimes it may last for months, even after therapy. The best possible solution to restore your energy levels is to stay active.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology suggests moderate to high-intensity workout as an effective intervention during chemotherapy.
As per the findings, the breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy who exercised regularly experienced less pain, fatigue, and nausea and were more fit than those who didn’t exercise.
Boost muscle and bone strength
Cancer either directly or indirectly affects your muscles and bone. Let me tell you how.
Cancer treatment targets your bones and muscles, particularly radiation and hormonal therapy. We also don’t move much during treatment which weakens our muscles due to inactivity. Early menopause linked with several cancers can further make bones prone to breakage.
You can minimize the above possible loss by staying fit. Adding physical activity, especially balance and strength training exercises, in your daily life boosts bone and muscle health.
A study published in the Journal of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment concludes exercise can prevent bone loss and help build muscle mass in breast cancer survivors.
May Prevent Cardiotoxic Effects of Cancer Drugs
Heart problems are serious but uncommon side effects of cancer treatment. Some chemotherapeutic drugs can damage cardiac muscles by several mechanisms. Your heart health can deteriorate even more with radiation therapy targeting the chest area.
In this case, exercise can alleviate the cardiotoxic effects to some extent. A systemic review suggests that exercise may be effective in preventing these negative outcomes.
Also, exercise is a well-known cardiovascular booster that improves blood flow, manages blood pressure and controls cholesterol levels.
Improve immune function
There’s always a war between evil and good going on in your body. Your immune cells constantly fight against cancer cells to protect your body from tumors. But sometimes, these defensive cells get overwhelmed by bad boys (cancer cells), and the monster gets bigger.
That’s where immunotherapy comes in. It triggers the immune system to recognize and combat tumor cells. Unluckily, some people don’t show a significant response to such treatments, as per an article published in Journal for Chemotherapy and Cancer.
The same review article mentions that exercise may show substantial results in improving immune function.
Lowers the risk of developing lymphoedema
Lymphoedema is swelling due to the accumulation of lymph fluid. Sometimes your tumor gets big enough to block lymph nodes, causing fluid pooling in surrounding areas.
Plus, damage to lymphatic vessels can occur by radiation therapy that further results in build-up of lymph fluid.
Significant evidence suggests that exercise can lower the risk of developing lymphedema in the early stage of cancer. It improves lymphatic flow system, thus reducing swelling. Exercise works your muscle, pushing fluid away from the affected site.
Improve quality of life
Living with cancer is not easy at all. Never-ending chemotherapy and medication do a lot of damage to your body. You may experience nausea, vomiting, low sex drive, sleep disturbance, hair loss, forgetfulness, and the list goes on.
It’s important for you to be prepared and take action to manage such changes. Besides seeking medical care, adopting lifestyle changes will improve your well-being. Studies show that exercise during cancer treatment positively impacts the quality of life and improves self-esteem, sex life and sleep cycle.
Manage weight gain
It’s hard to manage your weight during cancer treatment. Some people shed and some gain pounds during therapy. Certain treatments, such as radiation and steroid therapy, are associated with weight gain. And the evidence shows that being overweight lowers the chance of recovery.
Regular physical activity before and during the treatment can be very helpful. It works your muscles and burns off excess calories. A research found that exercise is an effective intervention to manage weight gain in breast cancer patients.
Decrease chance of recurrence
Cancer recurrence is when cancer returns after the treatment or when the time in remission has passed. It happens because undetectable tumor cells escape the initial treatment and remain in the body. Over time, these cells grow to the point that they become noticeable and show symptoms.
The risk of recurrence varies on the basis of tumor type, length of therapy, and different individuals. As per stats, 35% of women with breast cancer are likely to undergo recurrence. It’s important to take timely action to prevent this disorder from coming back.
Along with healthy lifestyle choices, regular exercise can stop the tumor from growing back. A meta-analysis review of different studies concluded exercise effectively lowers cancer recurrence and mortality risk.
Help manage comorbidities
Statistics show that almost 85% of cancer patients have at least one comorbid condition. Complications like hypertension, diabetes and heart problems burden the patient’s care.
Along with medication, exercise is an effective therapy to manage these coexisting disorders to improve physical and mental well-being. A study shows that regular physical activity helps manage and lowers the risk of developing chronic conditions.
How Does Exercise Help Lower Cancer Risk?
Whether you are diagnosed with cancer or not, physical activity is no less than a miracle for you. Not only does it help manage tumor therapy, but also regular workout lowers the risk of cancer.
Numerous mechanisms exist behind this protective effect, and research is still underway. Some of them are mentioned below:
Obesity is the mother of almost all chronic health conditions. Being overweight means you have extra fat in your body. This, in turn, can affect how your body regulates cancer cells.
It is linked with at least 13 cancer types. Burning off excess calories can help you lower the risk. Studies show that losing as little as 5 to 10% weight can decrease your chance of cancer.
Reduce hormone levels
Hormones are chemical messengers that tell your body cells what to do. In the case of hormone-dependent cancers, these substances encourage cancer cells to divide and grow. As a result, the tumor gets bigger in size.
On the brighter side, regular workout maintains weight in a healthy range that lowers hormone levels. For instance, being physically fit keeps estrogen and insulin in check, which are responsible for breast cancer.
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to trauma. However, it can become quite unhealthy if the body fails to shut down the process. This persistent inflammation can trigger cells to proliferate and mutate, which increases the cancer risk.
On the other hand, regular workout is well known for stopping inflammatory responses. A recent study found that a session of 20-minute moderate-intensity exercise alone can generate anti-inflammatory reactions in the body.
How Much Exercise Is Enough For Cancer Patients?
Now you are well aware of the benefits of regular workout for tumor patients, let’s discuss how much is enough. Luckily, American Cancer Society more often updates its guidelines about physical activity for cancer patients. Here’s the summary of the recent update:
- ACS recommends 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity weekly exercise for adults. Children and teens should do 1-hour moderate to vigorous workout per day that must include muscle-strengthening activities 3 days a week.
In case you don’t know, moderate-intensity activity is any exercise that lets you talk but not sing, for instance, bicycling. While doing vigorous-intensity exercise, you can’t carry on a conversation like jogging.
- Limit inactivity and sedentary behavior, such as watching television, sitting, etc.
- Resume your daily life activities as soon as possible.
- Exercise several times a week, and one session should last at least 10 minutes.
- Indulge in resistance training and stretching workout at least two days a week.
Things to Keep In Mind Before Starting Exercise Programme
There are a lot of factors you need to think about before implementing any fitness regime. Especially cancer requires particular considerations to begin with any workout plan. So without ado, let’s get straight to these points.
Talk to your healthcare provider
It’s important to get your doctor’s okay before following any specific exercise program. Sometimes, the medications you take may limit your ability to do certain activities due to possible side effects.
Also, some coexisting conditions like severe fatigue, balance problems, heart diseases and bone weakness require extreme caution.
To get beneficial results, you should always consult with a physiotherapist or exercise specialist. Be sure the person is aware of your cancer and any limits you have. It will help you identify what kind of activities and how long is safe for you.
If you are just starting out, keeping up with guidelines can be a bit overwhelming. Well, there is no need to panic. Activity levels below the recommendation can still provide you health benefits.
Exercise for as long and as often as your body allows. Slowly build up the pace and intensity. For instance, you can break this 150-minute practice into 30 minute-session five times per week. Further, split these thirty minutes into three 10-minute sessions. See, it’s not that difficult!
Engage in different activities
American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends regular strength training and aerobic exercise for cancer patients. Also, research shows it’s important to get involved in different activities. Doing one type may help improve your ability to do others. Here are various exercises you should indulge in:
- Stretching exercises are important if you have been inactive during treatment. Radiation therapy affects your joint and muscle. This kind of workout improves your range of motion and enhances flexibility.
- Balance exercise can help you regain your lost balance due to tumor therapy and its side effects. It can help you ease into your daily life activities safely.
- Muscle loss occurs due to inactivity during cancer treatment. Strength training can help you regain and build muscle mass.
- Aerobic exercises boost your cardiovascular health and get your heart pumping harder and faster. It helps you feel less tired during treatment and ease you back into the normal routine.
Here are some safety tips to keep in mind if you are getting started –
- Drink plenty of fluids and stay hydrated.
- If you experience any warning signs such as shortness of breath, chest tightness, or rapid heart rate, stop the activity and call for immediate medical help.
- If you are likely to catch an infection due to a weakened immune system, avoid public gyms until you feel better.
- In the case of radiation therapy, try to avoid water sports such as swimming.
- Always carry a cell phone with you when going outside for exercise.
Along with medications, you can manage cancer with exercise to improve your quality of life. Not only does it help during treatment, but also it lowers the risk of cancer.
Different guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Exercise during cancer is safe as long as you follow precautions.
- American Cancer Society Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity. (n.d.). American Cancer Society. Retrieved August 27, 2022, from
- CohenSolal, A. (2021). Exercise to prevent cardiotoxicity in cancer: ready for implementation? European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 29(3), 462.
- Cormie, P., Trevaskis, M., Thornton-Benko, E., & Zopf, E. M. (2020). Exercise medicine in cancer care. Australian Journal of General Practice, 49(4), 169–174.
- Dimitrov, S., Hulteng, E., & Hong, S. (2017). Inflammation and exercise: Inhibition of monocytic intracellular TNF production by acute exercise via β2-adrenergic activation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 61, 60–68.
- Gustafson, M. P., Wheatley-Guy, C. M., Rosenthal, A. C., Gastineau, D. A., Katsanis, E., Johnson, B. D., & Simpson, R. J. (2021). Exercise and the immune system: taking steps to improve responses to cancer immunotherapy. Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer, 9(7), e001872.
- Ligibel, J. A., Bohlke, K., & Alfano, C. M. (2022). Exercise, Diet, and Weight Management During Cancer Treatment: ASCO Guideline Summary and Q&A. JCO Oncology Practice.
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- Schwartz, A. L. (2000). Exercise and Weight Gain in Breast Cancer Patients Receiving Chemotherapy. Cancer Practice, 8(5), 231–237.