Should I exercise if I have cancer?

Fitness, Health
workout kit

We know that physical exercise is an important part of preventing chronic diseases. The CDC puts it clearly:

“Regular physical activity helps improve your overall health, fitness, and quality of life. It also helps reduce your risk of chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, many types of cancer, depression and anxiety, and dementia.”

Reviewing the existing research on cancer prevention and exercise, University of British Columbia researchers say:

“For all adults, exercise is important for cancer prevention and specifically lowers risk of seven common types of cancer: colon, breast, endometrial, kidney, bladder, esophagus and stomach.”

But can exercise help you if you are already have cancer or are recovering from cancer?

I fully agree with what cancer.net says:

“Always talk with your doctor before you start an exercise program during or after cancer treatment. While exercise is proven to be safe during different types of cancer treatment, your ability to exercise and the types of exercises you can do depends on:

  • The type of cancer you have
  • The treatments being used
  • The side effects that you are experiencing
  • Your level of fitness
  • Your other health problems”

Should I take exercise during cancer treatment?

The American Cancer Society gives very clear advice:

“In the past, people being treated for a chronic illness (an illness a person may live with for a long time, like cancer or diabetes) were often told by their doctor to rest and reduce their physical activity. This is good advice if movement causes pain, rapid heart rate, or shortness of breath. But newer research has shown that exercise is not only safe and possible during cancer treatment, but it can improve how well you function physically and your quality of life.

“Too much rest can lead to loss of body function, muscle weakness, and reduced range of motion. So today, many cancer care teams are urging their patients to be as physically active as possible during cancer treatment. Many people are learning about the advantages of being physically active after treatment, too.”

Cancer.net agrees with this advice:

“Exercise is an important part of a cancer treatment plan. A growing amount of research shows that regular exercise can greatly improve physical and mental health during every phase of treatment. Even if you were not active before your cancer diagnosis, an exercise program that meets your unique needs can help you get moving safely and successfully.” via Exercise During Cancer Treatment | Cancer.Net

University of British Columbia researchers are also clear about this:

“For the rising number of cancer survivors worldwide, there’s growing evidence that exercise is an important part of recovery.

“For cancer survivors, incorporate exercise to help improve survival after a diagnosis of breast, colon and prostate cancer.

“Exercising during and after cancer treatment improves fatigue, anxiety, depression, physical function, quality of life and does not exacerbate lymphedema.”

This last sentence is particularly interesting. Exercise reduces the fatigue associated with many cancer treatments. This is counter-intuitive but well proven by the research.

Researchers at Uppsala University say that people receiving treatment for cancer are known to feel better with physical training. Their research shows that it really dosn’t matter if the training is intensive or rather less strenuous, its effect is roughly the same.

The Australian Cancer Council says this about cancer fatigue and exercise:

“Feeling tired, even when rested, is common in people with cancer. Sometimes it lasts for months after treatment ends. Staying active can help ease fatigue. Try adjusting how hard and how often you exercise – some people find shorter, frequent aerobic sessions are more manageable; others prefer strength-based training. Losing fitness and strength can make fatigue worse. Doing some low intensity exercise can help you maintain your fitness and strength (unless you have severe anaemia).”

A 2019 article in the Journal of Physiology, from the University of Queensland, shows that exercise may have a direct effect on the progress of the cancer. James Devin, the lead author, said:

“We have shown that exercise may play a role in inhibiting the growth of colon cancer cells. After an acute bout of HIIT there were specific increases in inflammation immediately after exercise, which are hypothesised to be involved in reducing the number of cancer cells.”

The Mayo Clinic agrees and points to the psychological feelings that you are doing something and not just being “done to”:

“The evidence keeps rolling in: Exercise can be one of your most important cancer treatments. For anyone dealing with a cancer diagnosis, that’s great news. Starting — or maintaining — an exercise program can empower you to move out of a more passive “patient” role; it’ll help improve not just your well-being but your attitude, too.”

Should I take exercise if I’ve had cancer?

Again the evidence clearly says that you should. It may even help to prevent the recurrence of cancer.

An article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal states it clearly in relation to breast cancer:

“For patients with breast cancer, physical activity and avoiding weight gain are the most important lifestyle choices that can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and death.”

The researchers go on to say:

“Of all lifestyle factors, physical activity has the most robust effect on breast cancer outcomes,”

The Dana-Faber Cancer Institute says:

“Exercising, even at a moderate level, is one thing cancer survivors can do to lower the odds of cancer recurrence. The most consistent and largest number of studies looking at the links between exercise and cancer recurrence and overall survival have been reported for patients with breast and colorectal cancer, though increasingly other cancer types are also being studied.”

The Australian Cancer Council offers this cautious message:

“There’s some evidence that getting to and staying at a healthy weight, eating right, and being physically active may help reduce the risk of a second cancer as well as other serious chronic diseases.”

I believe this is unnecessarily cautious, as there is certainly lots of hard evidence about the effect of diet and exercise on many chronic diseases at the very least.

There is research also that even if  it cannot reduce the cancer, for many the quality of life for those with advanced cancer improved through walking for just 30 minutes three times per week.

I’m sure that if you’ve got through cancer and are disease-free or with a stable cancer, you’d want to reduce your chances of suffering and possibly dying from other chronic diseases. So do take that exercise and eat a plant-based diet and maintain a healthy weight.

If you have always hated exercise, read my blog post on how to exercise even if you hate it. If you want to start by walking more, read my post on how to take more steps and enjoy walking more.