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Exercise During Cancer Treatment: What You Should Know

A cancer diagnosis can upend your life. But, some routines—like physical activity and exercise—should continue to be part of your day.

“There’s been a great deal of research in the last ten years that supports people exercising throughout their cancer treatment,” said Jeannie Kozempel, PT, DPT, MS, Manager of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “It can lessen anxiety, depression, and fatigue, and it can also lead to better physical functioning and quality of life.”

Rishi Jain, MD, MS, DABOM, a medical oncologist at Fox Chase, agrees.

“We have evidence that patients who are more active and have more muscle mass tend to do better,” he said. “They have fewer side effects, lower risks of hospitalization, and even improved rates of survival.”

In some cases, exercise may even help reduce the risk of developing future cancers for those currently receiving treatment.

Do What’s Right for You

Like medical treatment for cancer, exercise must be personalized for each individual patient.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Jain said.

A general recommendation for everyone—including many cancer patients—is to get at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.

“My moderate activity could be very different than yours,” Kozempel said. “We recommend using the perceived exertion scale: zero is nothing, ten is the hardest you can possibly work. We want you around a three or four when you are exercising.”

If you didn’t run marathons before your cancer diagnosis, don’t try to start doing them now. Instead, look for ways to fit activity into your daily routine.

“I like to tell my patients in the thick of things, when it’s hard to get motivated and they’re really fatigued, that they can do a little something during TV programs,” Kozempel said. “Every commercial break, you can do a little exercise. Maybe you walk around the house, or you stand up and do some arm lifts or leg lifts. That’s about three minutes.”

Finding dedicated time to exercise is best, but activities throughout the day count, too. Going up and down the stairs or parking a little farther away to get a few more steps in can be great exercise. Anything that gets you to stretch, breathe, balance, or raise your heart rate can be helpful.

If you are having trouble figuring out a routine that works for you, many resources are available to help cancer patients identify activities that work for them.

“Don’t hesitate to reach out,” Kozempel said. “Ask your doctor for a referral to physical therapy or check out your local YMCA for programs.”

The Future of Exercise and Cancer Care

Research on the role exercise plays in helping cancer patients feel better and live longer is ongoing.

“Many clinicians have advocated for assessment of physical activity, to check it like a vital sign. Can we ask some questions for physical activity levels at every visit? Can we identify bad habits earlier and intervene to improve outcomes? There’s a lot of movement in that direction,” Jain said. “We aren’t quite there yet, but we’re trying to standardize how we address physical activity in cancer patients. And, it’s always a great topic to bring up with your oncologist if you are a patient who wants to become more active.”

Learn more about Fox Chase’s physical therapy program