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Image / Self / Health & Wellness

Ask the Doctor: ‘Can I exercise during cancer treatment?’


By Sarah Gill
17th Jan 2023
Ask the Doctor: ‘Can I exercise during cancer treatment?’

All your burning health questions answered by the professionals.

When undergoing cancer treatment, many find themselves uncertain as to what forms of exercise might be best suited to them. Here, we hear from Ms. Ailish Daly, Licensed Physiotherapist, Founder FIT FOR LIFE Oncology Exercise Program, Director Beacon Research Institute, Director of Quality and Patient Safety, and Professor Jennifer Westrup, Consultant Medical Oncologist, Beacon Hospital, Clinical Professor, UCD.

cancer exercise

The short answer is YES! We know, through years of research, that exercise not only reduces your risk of developing many different types of cancer, but that exercise during cancer treatment can improve many health-related outcomes. In fact, we encourage patients to exercise while they are receiving cancer treatment.

There is both moderate and strong evidence that combined aerobic and resistance training can improve cancer related fatigue, physical function, anxiety and depression, lymphoedema, bone health and sleep.

Exercising during cancer treatment has been proven to be safe. The current guidelines for exercise are 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day, and strength training twice per week. Exercise alleviates symptoms and combats muscle loss and decreased fitness that can occur during a cancer diagnosis and treatment. In fact, researchers are investigating the use of treadmills and stationary bicycles in the chemotherapy delivery units. While patients are receiving chemotherapy or immunotherapy, they may be walking or cycling which can improve blood flow and may enhance anti-cancer treatment delivery.

Published research reports that breast cancer patients who increase physical activity after diagnosis, reduce the risk of dying by 34% and the risk of disease recurrence by 24%. This positive effect is also seen in colorectal cancer research which reports that patients who exercise have a 28% reduction in risk of dying. Even with the introduction of walking at a brisk pace, another study reports a 57% reduction in the risk of cancer progression.

We encourage all patients who are faced with a cancer diagnosis to begin or continue an exercise program. If you have limitations, several centers like ours have created exercise programs and/or have licensed physiotherapists that can guide you. In our Fit for Life exercise program, our patients’ age range is 32 to 75, with beginners and seasoned athletes.

Overall, the participants report a 100% satisfaction rate in a 6-week circuit training and nutrition program delivered by health care professionals. Although exercise may help some side effects like fatigue and anxiety, there may be days where your system needs rest. This is the case with all athletes! Accept that your body may need one or two rest days, consider trying to do something lighter than usual like a light Pilates or yoga session rather than nothing. As with any exercise plan, keeping motivated to exercise can be a challenge for us all. We encourage you to have a support system: a friend or family member or talk to your team in the hospital. Use all of your resources!

General recommendations include, avoid inactivity – a short walk is better than no walk. If you have the energy but you know you are not at your best, aim for something rather than nothing. Start gentle – 10 minutes at a slow pace and increase gradually. The goal for weekly activity during treatment is about 150 mins per week of moderate cardiovascular exercise with 2 strengthening sessions. If in doubt, talk to your doctor, nurse or physiotherapist.

Have a question for the professionals you’d like answered? Get in touch with [email protected] with the subject headline ‘Ask The Doctor’.