Authored by Revere Health

Physical Activity During Cancer Treatment

June 15, 2017 | Cancer CenterHematology-Oncology

Previous treatments for chronic illnesses like cancer typically came with doctors’ orders to rest and reduce physical activity. While rest is good if exercise causes pain, abnormal heart rate or loss of breath, modern research suggests that exercise is safe and possible during treatment, and that it can improve physical function and quality of life in many cancer patients.

As a result, many cancer care teams urge patients to be as active as they can manage during treatment. Here’s a look at some basic physical therapy information, including proper goals based on your treatment progress.

How Can It Help?

Regular exercise can help in numerous areas during cancer treatment:

  • Keep or improve physical abilities
  • Improve balance and lower risk of falls
  • Keep muscles from weakening or wasting due to inactivity
  • Lower risk of heart disease or osteoporosis
  • Improve blood flow to legs, and lower risk of blood clots
  • Decrease dependency on others, and increase self-esteem
  • Lower risk of anxiety or depression
  • Decrease nausea
  • Improve social performance
  • Lessen fatigue symptoms
  • Control weight
  • Improve overall quality of life

Exercise Goals

Every individual exercise program should be tailored to your needs and preferences, and it should be something you enjoy. Your exercise plan might be affected by your type of cancer and its treatment, and by your basic fitness level—your doctor or a physical therapist can help with specifics. If you haven’t done any physical activity in a while, you should start slowly and with low intensity.

Once treatment has stopped and side effects are beginning to wear off, exercise habits can change. Some people are able to increase time and intensity, depending on their side effects. Physical activity is especially important for people who are living disease-free or with stable disease—the American Cancer Society recommends cancer survivors take the following actions:

  • Perform regular physical activity
  • Avoid inactivity, and return to normal daily activities as soon as possible after diagnosis
  • Attempt to exercise at least 150 minutes per week
  • Include strength training exercises at least two days per week


Make sure to check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program, especially if treatments (such as chemotherapy or radiation) can affect your lungs or your heart. A few specific precautions you can take, if approved by your doctor:

  • Don’t exercise if you have a low red blood cell count, abnormal mineral levels in your blood, unrelieved pain, nausea or vomiting, or any other condition that concerns you.
  • Stay away from public gyms and locations if you have low white blood cell counts or take medications that reduce your ability to fight infection.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Don’t exceed a moderate level of exercise without speaking to your doctor first. In this case, “moderate” refers to any exercise equivalent to a brisk walk.
  • If you’re getting radiation, don’t expose treated skin to chlorine in swimming pools.
  • Stay away from uneven surfaces or weight-bearing exercises that could lead to falls.
  • If you have osteoporosis, cancer that’s spread to bones, arthritis, nerve damage or poor vision, don’t use heavy weights or stress bones too heavily.
  • Watch for swollen ankles, surprising weight gain or shortness of breath while at rest. Speak to your doctor if you have any of these issues.
  • Watch for bleeding, swelling, pain, dizziness or blurred vision, and call your doctor right away if any of these occur.  

Sticking to a Program

The key to any exercise program accompanying cancer treatment or recovery is to keep things simple and fun. A fun program is easier to stick to and will get you more excited to take part in it. Other tips to help you stay with a program include:

  • Set goals, both short-term and long-term
  • Mix up the routine to keep it fresh
  • Ask for support, and try to find people to work out with you
  • Use charts to record progress
  • Recognize your achievements, and reward yourself
  • Start slowly, and build up based on your body’s response

If you’re in cancer treatment or recovery, your doctor will lay out the options and benefits associated with physical activity for your particular case.

*Note: No two cancer cases are alike. None of the statements herein are designed to suggest a “one size fits all” approach, and each case will be evaluated individually.

We provide the latest in cancer treatment and technologies, and work with you to determine the best treatment options at any stage of your treatment. 


“Physical Activity and the Cancer Patient.” American Cancer Society.



The Live Better Team

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.