Benefits of Exercise for Cancer Patients and Survivors

Benefits of Exercise for Cancer Patients

Andrea Leonard

In 1996, the first Surgeon General’s report on physical activity and health was published. This included the currently accepted public health recommendations for physical activity for general health; 20 minutes of moderate intensity activity – such as brisk walking – on most days of the week. This recommendation has been adopted by the American Cancer Society and is included in the current recommendations from the American Cancer Society in preventing cancer. Exercise has many proven health benefits for both preventing disease and promoting health and wellbeing. There is substantial evidence that suggests that increasing physical activity, including structured exercise programs, is associated with lower rates of certain cancers. In particular, there is evidence that high levels of physical activity can work to prevent colon cancer. Cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, and uterus have also been linked to exercise-related prevention.

Benefits of Exercise through Cancer Prevention

A history of moderate, recreational exercise is associated with reduced risk of breast, uterine, cervical, and ovarian cancers, although not all studies have shown this effect. Findings from a 1993 study suggest that women engaged in moderate to high levels of physical activity may have a reduced risk of endometrial cancer. Currently, scientists are studying the biological impact that exercise has on the risk of cancer. Some of the methods that are being studied include:

• Maintenance of a healthy body weight and overall amounts of body fat.
• Maintenance of low levels of fat in and around the abdomen.
• Maintenance of the biological system that regulates blood sugar levels.
• Control of some tumor growth factors.
• Improved immune function, including increased levels of Natural Killer cells.

• Reduced symptoms of mild to moderate anxiety and depression (which may improve immune function and overall physiologic functioning).

• Increased levels of free radical scavengers to assist the body in preventing DNA damage.

• Suppression of ‘prostaglandins’ (hormone-like substances that are released in greater quantities by tumor cells).

It is not clear exactly what amounts of physical activity work to prevent cancer. We know that exercise can help prevent obesity, which is related to some types of cancers. It can also change the body’s hormone levels, which might also have a favorable effect. Exercise, by speeding up metabolism, is generally believed to speed up the passage of ingested foods through the colon – thus reducing the amount of time the colon mucosal lining is in contact with possible carcinogens. Additionally, those who engage in a high level of physical activity are much less likely to smoke cigarettes, the single largest contributor to cancer.


Starting or maintaining an exercise program after cancer diagnosis results in patients who are stronger both mentally and physically; concludes a statistical analysis of 24 studies. Kerry Courneya of the University of Alberta, Canada led the research, which is published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. Courneya says “Cancer diagnosis and its’ treatments are often associated with negative side effects that diminish the quality of life. Overall, studies have consistently demonstrated that physical exercise following cancer diagnosis has a positive effect on the quality of life.” The various studies mention increased stamina, increased functional capacity, strength, self-esteem, improved treatment tolerance, and satisfaction with life, and decreased pain. Psychological changes including a decrease in total mood disturbances, decrease in depression, and fewer problems sleeping were noted between the exercise and non-exercise groups. It has also been noted that increased physical activity has been associated with less fatigue during and after chemotherapy and radiation.

The specific exercise “dose” (frequency, intensity, and duration of sessions) needed to improve physical and psychological functioning in cancer patients probably differs according to specific treatment, cancer type, and individual response to treatment. Some forms of cancer treatment, particularly those that are used to treat childhood cancers, have been found to have long-term negative effects on the heart and lungs. This makes it even more important to exercise regularly; but it may be important to do so under medical supervision.


After cancer surgery exercise plays an invaluable role in helping one return to the strength and fitness level that was maintained prior to surgery. In many cases, due to lack of physical activity prior to surgery, patients are able to reach new heights in strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular conditioning. There are certain postural implications that often arise after mastectomy and lymph node dissection that are often compounded by reconstruction and radiation.

After years of working with cancer survivors, I declare with certainty that most of these issues can be dramatically improved upon if not entirely corrected, through the proper combination of stretching and strengthening. Anytime there is an amputation, it will ultimately result in some type of muscle imbalance. These issues will not correct themselves. Unfortunately, even patients who undergo physical therapy are released long before they are fully recovered, leaving the patient to go it alone in determining how to resume normal activities. In addition, when patients receive radiation to a particular area, there is bound to be some tightness, perhaps even scar tissue, where they received treatment. This can cause tightening in that area, and depending on where it is, can also contribute to many postural deviations. These postural imbalances are notable in most people due to everyday circumstances i.e.; working at a computer all day, holding a phone between your ear and your shoulder, sitting at a desk all day, holding a baby on one hip etc… Not only are they compounded by the surgery and radiation, but they can create a chain reaction, leading to neck, back, hip, knee, and even ankle pain. A thorough postural assessment can help you to determine what areas need to be stretched to relieve tightness and spasm and which need to be strengthened to create a counter balance.

Let’s not forget about the many benefits of cardiovascular conditioning. Many of you may still be suffering from fatigue long after your treatment has ended. Cardiovascular training, biking, walking, running, etc., will produce endorphins that will give you much needed energy. Unfortunately chemotherapy and radiation can have a detrimental effect on the heart and lungs. The good news is that both can be strengthened through a regular cardiovascular exercise program.

Swimming can provide an excellent source of relief for tight muscles without putting excessive strain on them. The buoyancy of the water allows for a wonderful workout that allows you to focus on range of motion for your arms and shoulders. This is highly recommended for breast cancer patients, particularly those who have undergone an axillary node dissection. Those of you suffering from arthritis will want to make sure the water is at least eighty degrees. You should avoid chlorinated pools when you have radiation burns. Public pools, as well as natural bodies of water, should be avoided when your blood cell counts are low (bacteria in the water can lead to an infection).


The Benefits of exercise in heart disease prevention and recovery have been well documented and respected for years. We now have hundreds of studies on the benefits of exercise with cancer prevention and recovery.