Physical Activity for Cancer Survivors


Now that cancer treatment is over, it’s likely that your Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers’ (RMCC) oncology team will suggest adding physical activity to your routine or maintaining what’s already been recommended. How much and how often you should exercise will depend on various factors including the type of cancer treatments and surgeries you received, as well as any side effects that you may be experiencing. 

As a cancer survivor, physical activity is very important. Exercise can help you: 

  • Reduce fatigue
  • Boost your mood
  • Regain your stamina and strength
  • Maintain a healthy weight 

In addition to these benefits, research shows that some cancer survivors can even reduce their risk of cancer recurrence by exercising. Furthermore, regular physical activity can help reduce the risk of developing other health conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even other types of cancer. As you move forward, it’s important to remember that it’s never too late to incorporate exercise into your daily routine for better health regardless of where you fall on the post-cancer spectrum. 

As you can see, the importance of physical activity can greatly improve long-term treatment outcomes and quality of life among cancer survivors. 

In Early Survivorship, Ask Your Doctor for Exercise Advice 

Keep in mind that your treatment experience isn’t necessarily going to be the same as another patient’s. Because of this, the speed in which you start an exercise regimen will be dependent upon how you feel after a prolonged period of inactivity. This is why we encourage you to talk with your RMCC oncologist about what he or she thinks you can handle. Be sure to ask questions that are relevant to your status as a cancer survivor. Some questions might include: 

  • Are there certain exercises or activities that I should avoid?
  • How often should I exercise and how long should each session last?
  • Do I need to try to lose weight or gain it? If so, how much? 
  • What types of activities are safest and most beneficial for me?
  • Should I focus on activities like strength training (lifting weights, yoga, sit-ups, push-ups) or cardiovascular exercise (walking, running, swimming, cycling)? 
  • Are there group exercise or cancer survivor exercise classes that I could join?

What to Consider As a Cancer Survivor When Adding in Exercise

We understand that it can be difficult to sort through the dos and don’ts of adding exercise into your routine. To make it easier, the American Cancer Society gathered important information regarding best practices regarding physical activities after cancer treatment from a group of nutrition, physical activity, and survivorship experts. A group of physicians published these findings in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. Some notable findings regarding physical activity for cancer survivors include:

  • Avoid gyms and pools that are open to the public. Bacteria and viruses lurk in these areas and may be easily picked up for at least a few months after chemotherapy. This also applies to patients who have a low white blood cell count. 
  • How much stamina you have will depend on how you feel. When fatigued, aim for at least 10 minutes of light exercise but avoid overdoing it or pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion. On days you feel better, aim for a longer exercise time. Some survivors even find relief from fatigue by exercising more often. 
  • If you have nerve pain (neuropathy) or tingling in your hands or feet, you may feel off balance. If you find yourself in a situation such as this, consider riding a stationary bike or walking on a treadmill where you can hold on. 
  • Try to avoid chlorine exposure in a pool or too much sun from outdoor exercise if you have recently completed radiation therapy or have had a skin reaction to your radiation treatment. 

Tips for Transitioning to an Active Lifestyle

Just because you know exercising is necessary to stay healthy and reduce the risk of cancer recurring, it doesn’t mean committing to an exercise plan is easy. In fact, it can be a real challenge. To keep it from feeling like a burden, try making it fun. Not only will you benefit from the physical activity, you’ll also be more enthusiastic about it if you enjoy it. Especially in your early days as a cancer survivor, any activity is helpful! Walking your dog or walking with a friend, doing light stretching or yoga, taking a bike ride, even dancing around the living room with your grandchildren counts as exercise. As a general rule, The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors should add exercise into their routine slowly, focusing on activities that are enjoyable. It is also recommended to eventually exercise for at least 150 minutes per week.

To keep from overdoing it, break up your exercise time into smaller, more manageable intervals. For example, exercise at home for three, equally-effective 10-minute stints rather than going to the gym for 30 minutes one day. You may find that working in frequent, short exercise breaks is often more manageable than committing to one long session. Additionally, if your RMCC oncologist has recommended that you incorporate both strength-building exercises (like lifting hand weights) and cardiovascular exercises (like walking or jogging) into your routine, you can alternate between the two types of exercise, which will allow your body to recover more quickly between workouts while keeping you from getting bored or burnt out with your exercise routine. 

As you adjust to this new stage of your cancer survivorship, learn to embrace exercise to the best of your ability. Doing so will help you feel better and allow you to gain a greater appreciation for life. Eventually, exercise can once again become a natural, daily occurrence— one you might even enjoy!