Exercising with Cancer: Tips for Exercising Safely

This content has been reviewed and approved by

Jeremy R. Geffen, MD


When you first learn that you have cancer, exercise may be the last thing on your mind. But it can become one of your highest priorities and favorite activities as you navigate your cancer journey. If you are already an active person, use your fitness routine to strengthen and support yourself. Let your exercise buddies know about your situation and any challenges or limitations you might be encountering.

If you have not been a very active person, consider simply talking a short walk every day, or practice some simple deep breathing exercises, as a way to get started on an exercise program. Many research studies show that exercise can help people with cancer to feel better on many levels. Exercising just 10 minutes a day can reduce your fatigue, stimulate your immune system, and nourish your body, mind, heart, and spirit.

Tips for Exercising Safely with Cancer

  • First, talk to your health care providers. They can give you advice about what types of exercise may work best for you. If you're receiving chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation treatments, you may be having unpleasant side effects. If you're experiencing pain and nausea, it's necessary to get these problems under control first. Don't try to tough it out. Ask your doctor for medications that can help before you begin an exercise program. If the medications do not provide enough relief, ask your doctor for other alternative medications or complementary therapies that might help.
  • Be sensible and kind to yourself. Recognize your limitations. Think about which exercises can help, and which might be too much for you or even cause harm.
  • Start out slowly. Exercise for short periods at different times during the day. Build up your strength and endurance little by little. Doing too much, too soon, can hurt you, especially if you have not been active in the past.
  • If you have balance problems, consider exercises that are less likely to make you fall. Swimming, riding a stationary bicycle, and seated exercises may work best for you. Exercise equipment with handles to steady yourself might be another option.
  • If you've had surgery, it may take some time before you can start exercising. It depends on where your surgical wound is located and how it is healing. Ask your doctor before beginning any physical activities.
  • If your illness puts you at risk for infections, you may want to avoid going to a gym or other public places. If you do, wash your hands frequently and use your own towels, mats, etc. Most gyms keep antibacterial spray available, which you can use to wipe off equipment before and after use. If not, bring your own.

When can exercise be harmful?

Physical activity may help you heal, but only if it's done in a manner that is appropriate to your condition. The American Cancer Society offers the following cautions:

  • Avoid vigorous exercise if your blood counts are low and you are at risk for infection, anemia, and/or bleeding. Your cancer care team will tell you about your platelet levels and whether it is safe to exercise.
  • If you have been experiencing a lot of vomiting or diarrhea, some of the minerals in your blood may be low. Ask for your blood test results and if it is safe for you to exercise. Do not exercise if the level of minerals in your blood, such as sodium and potassium, are not normal. Ask your doctor about your blood tests and the implications for physical activity.
  • Avoid uneven surfaces or excessive weight-bearing exercises, which could result in a fall and injury. Exercise equipment with handles may help you to balance better.
  • If you are receiving treatments that affect your lungs (such as Bleomycin or radiation to the chest) or your heart (such as doxorubicin, epirubicin, Cerubidine), or if you have risk of lung or heart disease, check with your doctor before starting any exercise program. Be alert for trouble signs to report to your doctor, such as swollen ankles, unexplained weight gain, or shortness of breath while at rest or with a small amount of exertion.
  • If your illness or any of your medications affect your natural heart rate, don't use your pulse rate as a way of judging how hard you should exercise. One example of this kind of medicine is a type of blood pressure drug known as a beta blocker. Take care to not  overexert yourself.
  • Beware of risks for bleeding if you are taking blood thinners. Avoid falls or injury. If you notice swelling, pain, dizziness, or blurred vision, call your doctor immediately.

Safety Tips

Here are some things you can do to make sure you are exercising safely:

  • Don't hold your breath while straining—when using your muscles, for example. That could cause changes in your blood pressure. It may seem strange at first, but the rule is to breathe out while your muscle is working, breathe in when it relaxes. For example, if you are lifting something, breathe out as you lift; breathe in when you stop. Work only as hard as you can while still breathing easily enough to talk.
  • Use safety equipment to keep from getting hurt. That means, for example, a helmet for bike riding or the right shoes for walking or jogging, or perhaps a walking stick for balance.
  • Unless your doctor has asked you to limit fluids, be sure to drink plenty of water when you are doing activities that make you sweat. Many people tend to be low on fluid much of the time, even when not exercising. And if you have had vomiting and diarrhea, you will need extra fluids. Minimize your intake of dehydrating beverages, such as coffee and alcohol and/or drink more water to compensate for their effects.
  • Always bend forward from the hips, not the waist, with your knees slightly bent, not locked.
  • Warm up your muscles before you stretch. For example, do a little easy biking, or walking and light arm pumping first.

Exercises should not hurt or make you feel really tired. You might feel some soreness, a little discomfort, or a bit weary, but you should not feel pain. In fact, in most cases, and in many ways,  physical activity makes people feel better, more vigorous, and less tired or depressed.

Additional Websites and Resources

The American Cancer Society

This site has a wealth of information on exercising with cancer. The "Exercise to Stay Alive" page describes how much activity is healthy during treatment and helps you to create an appropriate exercise program.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology's People Living with Cancer website

Provides information for those recently diagnosed or undergoing treatment.

The Lance Armstrong Foundation

Founded in 1997 by cancer survivor and champion cyclist Lance Armstrong, the LAF provides practical information and tools to help people living with cancer to "live strong."

American College of Sports Medicine

ACSM is devoted to public awareness and education about the benefits of physical activity. The website offers free brochures with exercise tips.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control offers an A to Z index of medical conditions on its website. Tips on exercise are listed under the letter "E."

Fifty-Plus Lifelong Fitness

This nonprofit organization, started at Stanford University, promotes an active lifestyle for older people. Fifty-Plus publishes a newsletter, distributes books and videos, and sponsors physical activity events for midlife and older adults.

The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports

This is the health, physical activity, fitness, and sports information website of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. It offers publications on exercise and health, and links to the resources of other government agencies as well as to health and fitness organizations.

Small Steps
A government website that offers tips on adopting a healthier lifestyle.

Helpful Books and Articles On Cancer and Exercise

American Cancer Society. Physical Activity and the Cancer Patient.Available at: http://www.cancer.org/docroot/MIT/content/MIT_2_3x_physical_activity_and_the_cancer_patient.asp?sitearea=MIT. Accessed March 30, 2006.

Anna L. Schwartz. Cancer Fitness: Exercise Programs for Patients and Survivors. New York: Fireside, 2004.

Hoffman L, Freeland A. The Healing Power of Movement: How to Benefit from Physical Activity During Your Cancer Treatment. Cambridge, MA. Perseus Publishing. 2002.

Exercise: Getting Fit For Life. National Institute on Aging. Last updated December 30, 2005. Available at: http://www.niapublications.org/agepages/exercise.asp. Accessed March 30, 2006.

Physical Activity and Cancer Fact Sheet. National Cancer Institute. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/newscenter/pressreleases/PhysicalActivity. Accessed March 30, 2006.

This content was last reviewed August 15, 2010 by Dr. Reshma L. Mahtani.
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