What to know about exercise for cancer patients

Exercise is known to reduce stress and release good endorphins in the body that restore cells and help you feel good. Physical activity is great for both your body and mind.

So what about exercise and cancer? You may be wondering, “Can I exercise during my ongoing treatment? Will it help my recovery?”

The simplified answer is yes, according to Erin Mclaughlin, an oncology nurse navigator at OSF HealthCare.

“Physical activity is wonderful. It’s a plus,” Erin said.

The benefits of exercise for cancer patients

Cancer treatment – whether it’s radiation therapy, chemotherapy or surgery – can take a toll on your body. These treatments use extreme measures to fight cancer, and the effects can wear you down physically and mentally.

Combined with sedentary lifestyle effects, the side effects of cancer treatment can be more severe and harder to recover from.

Physical activity can help with regaining strength. It can also help decrease the effects of chemo brain fog. Inactivity makes these conditions worse.

Keeping your body and mind as strong and sharp as possible helps your body to better deal with, and recover from the effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

Exercise may be a cancer fighter

A study published in 2021 found that exercise may help halt or slow the growth of tumors. The study raises the possibility that exercise kills cancer cells.

Exercise causes your body to release proteins called myokines into your blood. These proteins are known to help your immune system fight and even kill cancer cells, raising the possibility that exercise, in combination with immunotherapy, can help treat cancer.

What is the best exercise for cancer patients?

There is no single best workout for cancer patients. Every person has a different story and faces a different situation.

“Physical activity is encouraged as long as you can safely do it,” Erin said. “Don’t overdo it and make yourself sick, though. But if you love riding bikes or swimming, keep it up!”

The thing to keep in mind is that you will need to adjust how strenuous your exercise is during active therapy. Because treatment lowers your white blood cell count, you are at higher risk of catching infections.

Treatment causes a reduction of your platelets, too, so you’re at higher risk of bleeding. That means more strenuous sports are a no-go during cancer treatment.

Due to surgery, pre-existing conditions or other impacts from treatment, some people require a more structured approach.

Physical therapy after cancer treatment is common. It provides expert-guided exercises that are tailored to each patient’s specific needs. Some people may also need physical therapy during treatment to make sure they stay active in a safe and helpful way.