Exercise Your Way Through Chemotherapy

Without a doubt, going through chemotherapy interferes with your regular exercise program.

Between traveling to and from oncologist appointments, sitting through an intravenous drip, and then overcoming the related fatigue and nausea, it's hard to find time to exercise.

Fatigue and nausea alone will hamper any sincere athletic goals.

However, keeping up with an exercise program during chemotherapy, if you are physically able to, is a good way to maintain mental health during a stressful time.

Whether you are a runner, a cyclist, a walker, or any other type of athlete, continuing those activities is key to staying fit and mentally healthy.

The feeling of being strong and healthy is reassurance that cancer is just a footnote to your otherwise active and healthy life.

Aerobic exercise strengthens the heart, minimises weight gain and muscle loss, and supports blood flow to the extremities that may be at risk of numbness and stiffness during chemotherapy.


Chemotherapy and Exercise Caution

Before you start pounding the pavement, it's important to know that it is not advised to exercise if you have certain cancers or treatments and, for this reason, you should always check with you doctor or oncologist before beginning or continuing an exercise program.


Exercise and Chemotherapy Benefits

Cancer and cancer treatments can bring about physical, mental and social issues that can affect your body and quality of life.

Exercise programs can help you to cope with cancer and treatment, and have been shown to be safe, feasible and effective.

Benefits of exercise include:

  • Increased muscle strength and endurance
  • Increased energy and decreased cancer-related fatigue
  • Improved bone density and range of motion of the joints
  • Increased cardiovascular and respiratory function
  • Lessened nausea and vomiting in some people on chemotherapy
  • Stimulates appetite
  • Deeper and more refreshing sleep
  • Increased feelings of control over your life
  • Improved digestion and reduced constipation
  • Decreased levels of stress and anxiety
  • Improved mood

Exercise and good nutrition can help you to create a healthy, active lifestyle and help you get back into daily life and work, with your colleagues, friends and family.

To find out which nutrients are needed to support your particular cancer treatment, read Cancer – Getting The Most Out of Your Treatment


Where to Start 

The following types of exercise can help cancer patients get back in shape:

  • Flexibility exercises (stretching). Virtually everyone can do flexibility exercises. If you're not yet ready for more vigorous exercise, you should at least stay flexible.
  • Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, jogging, and swimming. This kind of exercise burns calories and helps you lose weight. Aerobic exercise also builds cardiovascular fitness, which lowers the risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.
  • Resistance training (Iifting weights or isometric exercise), which builds muscle. Many people lose muscle, but gain fat, through cancer treatment. For those with a high fat-to-lean mass ratio, resistance training can be especially helpful.

Ideally, you should do aerobic exercises and weight training. Both types of exercise are critical to the overall health and well-being of cancer survivors.

For a personalised approach, speak to an Exercise Physiologist or Physiotherapist about tailoring an exercise program for your requirements. 


How Much and How Hard?

For the general population at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least 5 days a week is recommended.

This amount of exercise is proven to reduce the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Research has found that this amount is also beneficial for cancer patients.

Unless you're already very active, though, you shouldn't expect yourself to achieve this right away. As with anything else, the key is to set small, achievable goals and build on your successes.

Basically if you've already been active – keep it up! If you haven't been active, start slowly, but start something.

Try to find an activity you enjoy. You may want to buddy up with someone at the same fitness level. Having a friend to work out with will increase your motivation.


Keeping Up Immunity

Chemotherapy can kill the cancer, but it can also sabotage the immune system along the way.

When the white blood cell count goes down, there is a greater chance of getting an infection or sickness on top of everything else.

This is where exercise has its greatest effect. By moving the body, the arms, and the legs, circulation is increased and white blood cell count goes up.

It has been found that when a person jumps on a trampoline (rebounding), the lymphatic system is activated.

By moving arms and legs, the lymph system begins its work of finding infection and eliminating it.

Just 5-10 minutes on a trampoline daily are equal to the oxygenating effects of having run a kilometre.

This is an easy and effective way to build up a depleted immune system.

Try doing some jumping before bed. Drink some water and let the body recuperate and rebuild while sleeping.


Longer Life, Less Recurrence

It's no secret that exercise and eating right can prevent cancer but the latest research also shows that exercise for cancer patients can also keep cancer from recurring.

Several recent studies suggest that higher levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of the cancer coming back, and a longer survival after a cancer diagnosis.

Carrying excess weight is the biggest risk factor for cancer recurrence and striving towards a healthy weight is top priority for any cancer surviver. 

In studies of several different cancers, being overweight after completing treatment was associated with shorter survival times and higher risk of cancer recurrence.

Also women who exercise after completing breast cancer treatment live longer and have less recurrence, according to recent evidence.


Emed Comment

Around 125,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Australia this year, with roughly 1 in 3 of these people not surviving. 

So what better motivation to do everything you can to increase your chances of survival and improve your quality of life at the same time. 

Whatever you do, don't get discouraged. Doing anything is better than doing nothing.

The key is to start slowly and build your body's energy over time.

Your body has been through a lot and it is necessary to challenge it gradually.

A prescription for exercise alongside chemotherapy medication is fast becoming standard practise. ABC's Catalyst programme – Exercise Is Medicine, explores how hitting the gym is now important for the prevention, treatment and recurrence of cancer.





Further Reading



Adamsen L, Quist M, Andersen C, et al. Effect of a multimodal high intensity exercise intervention in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy: Randomized controlled trial. British Medical Journal. 2009; 339: b3410.

Kerry S. Courneya, Melanie R. Keats, A. Robert Turner, Physical exercise and quality of life in cancer patients following high dose chemotherapy and autologous bone marrow transplantation, Psycho-Oncology, Volume 9, Issue 2, pages 127–136, 2000.

Hanna van Waart, Martijn M Stuiver, Wim H van Harten, Gabe S Sonke and Neil K Aaronson, Design of the Physical exercise during Adjuvant Chemotherapy Effectiveness Study (PACES):A randomised controlled trial to evaluate effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of physical exercise in improving physical fitness and reducing fatigue, 2007.

Winningham ML, MacVicar MG, Bondoc M, Anderson JI, Minton JP, Effect of aerobic exercise on body weight and composition in patients with breast cancer on adjuvant chemotherapy, J. Clin. Oncol. 2005.

Cancer Council Australia