Get Moving: Benefits of Exercise for Cancer Patients

By Allison Grupski

Perhaps you have read, or learned from personal experience, that exercise is a great way to reduce stress. What you might not know however, is that physical activity is now recognized by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association as a prescription for both the prevention and management of chronic disease, and can play an important role in cancer prevention and recovery. In fact, the National Cancer Institute reports that greater physical activity is associated with lower risk for cancer incidence, especially when considering breast and colon cancers.

Research investigating the impact of exercise on mortality is ongoing, but we have learned that it has tremendous benefits throughout survivorship. Exercise helps improve surgical outcomes, fight fatigue, maintain bone density, improve functional ability and reduce weight gain. The American Cancer Society asserts that patients who adopt its guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention, may reduce their risk of developing secondary cancers, as well as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis.

Beyond these physical benefits, exercise can have a wonderful impact on patients’ psychological health throughout diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship.  Exercise can help ward off depression, improve mood, reduce anxiety, increase self-esteem and improve sleep. As a result, exercise can help improve physical, functional and emotional quality of life while navigating the changes and challenges that arise following a diagnosis of cancer.

Unfortunately, the physical and emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis and treatment often make exercise difficult or simply low on patients’ priority list. Many people decrease their level of physical activity after their diagnosis due to fatigue, pain, depression or fear that exercise is unsafe. In truth, physical activity is nearly always recommended. When and how to change your current exercise program or implement a new routine will vary according to your physical condition, lifestyle and treatment regimen.

While even small increases in physical activity are typically recommended (e.g., take the stairs rather than an elevator), precautions should be taken based on your individual needs. For example, survivors with compromised immune function should avoid public gyms until their white blood cell counts return to safe levels. Your physician and physical therapist can help you determine the best plan for you.

So talk to your doctor and determine the best way for you to get moving!

Allison Grupski, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in psychosocial oncology with the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Cancer Integrative Medicine Program at Rush University Medical Center.

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