Exercise After Cancer Diagnosis Can Offer Physical, Mental Benefits

It used to be that rest was favored over exercise during and after cancer treatment. But research continues to support the “prescription” to get moving.

Cathy Skinner is a cancer exercise specialist certified by the American Academy of Sports Medicine, and author of “The Art of Well’s Exercise for Cancer Recovery.” Based on her experience working with more than 400 cancer survivors, she talks about the physical and mental benefits of exercise during a health journey.

Why should exercise be considered during, or soon after, cancer treatment?

When a person is diagnosed with cancer, exercise might be the last thing on their list of things to do. However, research shows that exercise can reduce the recurrence of some cancers.

Dr. Jeffrey Meyerhardt of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute published a study in 2006 with women who had stage I to III colon cancer that found that women who walked for 30 minutes a day at a moderate pace for five days per week had as much as a 50% reduced recurrence of disease.

Beyond the value of reducing the recurrence of disease, exercise helps cancer patients maintain muscle mass and bone health, improve sleep, improve digestion, and manage stress.

For many, exercise is also a means of regaining control during a time of overwhelming, conflicting emotions. A woman I work with said, “The cancer journey can be very disempowering.

Exercise was a way to get my body back after my breast cancer diagnosis.”

Is it safe to exercise after a cancer diagnosis and what are the barriers to exercise?

With any type of exercise, there is a small risk of injury. But the benefits of exercise typically outweigh risks. After treatment, most cancer survivors look for ways to restore confidence and achieve wellness in their recovering body.

For many cancer patients and survivors, the greatest barrier to exercise is fatigue–the mind-numbing, life-altering, unimaginable fatigue that frequently accompanies diagnosis and treatment. But movement and exercise often decrease feelings of fatigue, and releases hormones such as endorphins and serotonin that trigger the brain and body to feel energized.

For decades, physicians treating cancer patients encouraged rest during and after treatment. However, with the evidence generated by research and greater understanding of the debilitating effects of treatment, such as the loss of muscle mass, loss of bone density, neuropathy, cognitive function, and digestion problems, physicians are now recommending that patients avoid inactivity.

What types of exercise benefit people during and after cancer treatment?

A cancer survivor’s ability to exercise may be affected by the type of cancer and treatment, as well as strength, stamina, and fitness level. Some exercises are easier to start with like chair yoga or chi-gong or walking.

Survivors should progress, if possible, to building muscle mass and improving bone health with weight-lifting exercises.

For many, the goal of exercise shifts from running the next race and accomplishing a goal to simply maintaining current health and fitness status. The journey itself becomes the goal.

Rather than being the end result, the value is in the consistency, the support, the recovery, and the process of getting connected to a stronger body.

Start a CaringBridge Website

Are you or a loved one caring for someone on a health journey? If so, start a CaringBridge website, where you can share updates and receive encouragement and support from your family and friends.

  • Don Keysser

    This is a wonderful concept and service. Like most of us, I have had friends and family dealing with cancer, and the insights discussed above are valuable and very true.