Exercise During Cancer: Getting Started

“How soon can I start exercising after I start cancer treatment?” It’s a question I hear often from patients who visit me for a fitness consult or class at Dana-Farber.

My answer? “As soon as possible.”

While it may seem counterintuitive, exercise offers key benefits for cancer patients – even those undergoing difficult treatments. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to give yourself an extra boost during and after cancer treatment.

Physical activity helps lower your stress, improve your sleep patterns, and elevate your mood. Something as simple as walking briskly around the block a few times can help you feel better both physically and emotionally. And, because exercise can help ensure you get a good night’s sleep, it helps combat fatigue – a common complaint among those undergoing cancer treatment.

Exercise physiologist Nancy Campbell holds classes for cancer patients.

Creating a fitness routine doesn’t need to involve a dramatic change. In fact, adding exercise to your daily routine can be simple, especially if you focus on small steps to make your day more active.

Here are some tips for getting started.

Check with your doctor. Make sure your exercise plan won’t interfere with your treatment or recovery. For example, if you’ve had surgery, it may take some time for wounds to heal before you should start exercising. Or, if you’re experiencing lymphedema (swelling) as a result of lymph node removal or treatment, you’ll want to make sure your exercise plan won’t make the swelling worse.

After you get signoff from your health care team, consider what exercise types might work best for you. Some options to consider:

  • Flexibility exercises, such as yoga or stretching. No matter what your treatment regimen, it’s likely that you can find a flexibility exercise that will work for you. Maintaining your mobility can help ensure that you’ll be ready to move on to more vigorous exercise.
  • Aerobic exercise, such as running, swimming, or brisk walks. Aerobic exercise is key because it helps you burn calories and lose weight. It also builds cardiovascular fitness, which can lower your risk of health problems like heart attack and diabetes. If you have balance problems, try exercises that are less likely to make you fall, such as riding a stationary bicycle.
  • Resistance exercises, such as lifting weights. These can help build muscle, which is helpful because it’s not uncommon for people to lose muscle (and add fat) during cancer treatment.

Ideally, your routine should include both aerobic and resistance exercises, because these will help you build muscle and increase your stamina, which can help improve your overall health.

No matter what types of exercise you decide to pursue, be sensible. Know your limits, and start out slowly. Short bouts of physical activity on most days of the week are more beneficial than the occasional exhausting workout. Build up your strength and endurance little by little. In the beginning, regularity is the key.

13 thoughts on “Exercise During Cancer: Getting Started”

  1. I have survived a very aggressive surgery for breast cancer and the new normal is depressingly sad. When a join Nancy and my classmates, I become encouraged and happy. I laugh because I’m so clumpsy, I nearly fall off the step board and others are doing the same. We each take baby steps to recovery and without this class I would feel so alone. Thank you DFCI and Nancy for being there with your gracious help.

  2. When i was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and had to have 3 surgies, two of them were rexcisions. I knew if I wanted to conquer Breast Cancer, I had to foucus on three things, first pray, stand on faith that I will beat cancer and lastly, surroudn myself with other cancer patients and learn as much as I can about the benefits of excersize in reducing recurrence, and reduce weight gain from the side effects of the medication I was taking. I was so grateful my physicians at Dana Farber listended to my concerns and suggested the excersise class. I have never felt so satisified that I can not only be around cancer patients of all races and ages but to reduce my weight gain and recurrance. Having the class made of cancer students like me that have been through such a dramatic ordeal and can manage to make each other smile,laugh and assit each other in our excersizes is such a rewarding experice. We have become a family who truly cares about each others health and day to day activites. Each friday I always wonder what new excerise are we going to do today. Nancy,and her team make us feel like individuals that can conqure not only our cancers but our new excersizes. I like that fact the each exercise we do, Nancy takes the time to explain the benefits of it, how each person can perfom it accoriding to their capabalities. Thank you Dana Farber, Physicians and Nancy for taking the time to listen, care and act on our concern regarding our cancer treatments, and how to alleviate the side effects of our medication ,and encouraging excercise as a way to reduce cancer occurance and motivate us not let cancer beat us..

  3. There are not enough good things to say about Nancy, this wonderful class, and the Dana Farber for offering it to patients. It is encouraging, motivating, health-promoting, and even fun. (I generally hate group exercise)

    It provides ongoing, predictable,mutual support that is readily available. It has helped to change my expectation that a cancer care center would be a place of dread to an expectation, fulfilled, of light and hope.

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