Exercise with and Beyond Cancer

Cancer survivorship increased in those who exercise

Women Walking
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A cancer diagnosis can completely disrupt your life. But one part of your routine should not be interrupted - physical exercise. A review of studies found large effects on survivorship rates and quality of life in cancer patients who continued to get the recommended amount of physical activity for all people of their age group. MacMillan Cancer Support released the report on Aug. 8, 2011.

Exercise Benefits Cancer Patients at Every Stage

If you have seen video of a bald Lance Armstrong on an exercise bike in the midst of his treatment for testicular cancer, you may have wondered whether it was an act of desperation and denial.

The review of studies instead says he was doing exactly what doctors should recommend for all of their cancer patients.

During Cancer Treatment: Fatigue is a common side effect of treatment, and many worry that exercise increases fatigue. Instead, studies show that exercise helps maintain physical function and doesn't increase fatigue.

After Cancer Treatment: Getting the recommended amount of exercise helps cancer patients recover their physical function.

Prevention of Recurrence and Mortality: Exercise during and after treatment was associated with a reduced risk of having a recurrence of some cancers, including breast, prostate and colorectal cancers.

  • Breast cancer - More than 40% reduction in mortality due to breast cancer or recurrence of breast cancer for those getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week
  • Prostate cancer - three hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week reduced mortality by 30% and lowered disease progression by 57%
  • Colorectal cancer - 50% reduction in recurrence and mortality with six hours of moderate physical activity per week.

In addition to these effects, survivors who get the recommended amount of exercise also reduce their risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Advanced Cancer: Even for those who had a progression of their cancer, exercise helped them maintain their ability to remain independent longer, and it increased their feelings of well being.

How Much Exercise Should a Cancer Patient Do?

The simple answer is that cancer patients should aim for the same recommended amounts of exercise as the general population in their age group. This means 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week for adults, done in bouts of at least 10 minutes at a time.
Exercise Recommendations for Adults

For those over age 65, it's recommended that they exercise daily for at least 10 minutes at a time to get to the goal of 150 minutes per week.
Exercise Recommendations for People Over Age 65 or with Chronic Disease

Avoiding Adverse Effects of Exercise for Cancer Patients

With a few precautions, cancer patients can avoid certain side effects that exercise itself may cause. A review of studies showed that any injuries were the same any exercisers would experience.

Tone Down the Intensity: Switch from vigorous-intensity exercise to moderate-intensity or light intensity to avoid increasing nausea, fatigue, dyspnea and immunosuppression. This may mean slower jogging or brisk walking rather than running.

Or taking it down another notch to strolling around the block.

Modify Exercise Based on Site of Treatment: After prostate or rectal surgery, a patient will want to avoid sit-down exercise such as riding a bicycle. For breast cancer patients and others who have lymphoedema, avoid strenuous repetitive exercise with the arm or leg that is experiencing the edema, and wear a compression garment.

Fractures: Cancer patients who have bone metastases or osteoporosis should avoid high-impact or contact exercises.

Preventing Falls: If treatment or progression of the cancer leads to dizziness or lack of coordination, the cancer patient should do balance exercises to help maintain or improve function. He or she should also use caution for any exercise that requires coordination. The study mentions treadmill walking as being risky for those with balance problems.

Exercise habits such as brisk walking can help cancer patients maintain their quality of life both during and after cancer treatment. Healthcare providers, family and friends should do all they can to encourage and support cancer patients in being physically active.


Campbell, Anna; Foster, Jo. "The importance of physical activity for people living with and beyond cancer: A concise evidence review." Macmillan Cancer Support July, 2011.

Holmes, MD et al. "Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis." JAMA. 25 May 2005. 293(20):2479-86.

Holick CN, Newcomb PA, Trentham-Dietz A et al. "Physical activity and survival after diagnosis of invasive breast cancer." Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2008. 17:379-386.

Meyerhardt JA, Giovannucci EL, Holmes MD, Chan AT, Chan JA, Colditz GA, Fuchs CS. "Physical activity and survival after colorectal cancer diagnosis." J Clin Oncol. 2006. 24: 3527-3534.

Meyerhardt, JA, Heseltine D, Niedzwiecki D, Hollis D, Saltz LB, Mayer RJ, Thomas J, Nelson H, Whittom R, Hantel A, Schilsky RL, Fuchs CS. "Impact of physical activity on cancer recurrence and survival in patients with stage III colon cancer: findings from CALGB 89803." Journal of Clinical Oncology 24. 2006. 3535-3541.

Kenfield SA, Stampfer MJ, Giovannucci E, Chan JM. "Physical activity and survival after prostate cancer diagnosis in the health professionals follow-up study." J Clin Oncol. 2011. 29:726-732.

Erin L. Richman, Stacey A. Kenfield, Meir J. Stampfer et al. "Physical Activity after Diagnosis and Risk of Prostate Cancer Progression: Data from the Cancer of the Prostate Strategic Urologic Research Endeavor." Cancer Res. 24 May 2011 (first published online).

Chief Medical Officer. UK Physical Activity Guidelines. 2011. Department of Health, London.

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