Should I exercise during cancer treatment?

May 7, 2020

Studies show that exercise can help most cancer patients counteract fatigue associated with treatment

Feeling fatigued during your cancer treatment? That’s normal. But what your doctor may prescribe wasn’t always so typical.

“Back in the day, it was thought that people suffering from cancer who were undergoing chemotherapy should ‘take it slow’ and that exercise may compound the side effects that they might be experiencing,” says Dr. Gary Thomas, medical oncologist and medical director at the St. Joseph’s/Candler SC Cancer Specialists, which recently moved to the new SJ/C Bluffton Campus at Buckwalter Place.

Dr. Gary Thomas

That’s not the case anymore. New evidence shows that those going through cancer treatment and those beyond cancer benefit from more physical activity. Dr. Thomas agrees.  

“I have seen firsthand the benefits that most patients who exercise during chemotherapy receive,” Dr. Thomas says. “Perhaps the most common complaint that I hear from patients undergoing chemotherapy is the significant fatigue that they are experiencing.

“My No. 1 prescription for these patients is to exercise as much as possible.”

Dr. Thomas also points out that each patient’s situation is unique and the recommendation for exercise must come from their doctor. Multiple factors – such as a patient’s age, overall health status, type of cancer and treatment regimen – needs to be considered before an exercise program is prescribed.

For example, older patients or those with cancer involving the bone could be at higher risk for fractures. Patients with compromised immune systems may need to avoid public gyms.

However, a basic exercise program for most cancer patients is acceptable and can include:

  • An aerobic workout of light to moderate intensity such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling and swimming
  • Strength training including lifting weights, resistance machines and resistance bands
  • Stretching to help muscles stay limber and avoid injury

“I tell patients that even just getting out and walking a bit is better than nothing,” Dr. Thomas says. “Once they start walking in general they will start feeling better and will want to exercise even more.”

Often cancer patients who exercise in treatment experience less pain, such as muscle and joint aches, as well as less nausea and even less anxiety and depression, Dr. Thomas says.

Related Article: Life After Cancer: Diet, Exercise and Weight

Another exercise option is yoga.

“Yoga to me is not competitive. It’s very much about doing what feels right for your body,” says Cathy Baxter, instructor of the Yoga for Cancer Patients class at St. Joseph’s/Candler and cancer survivor. “We are stretching and moving. You can rotate your shoulders slowly or you can do big sweeping circular motions. Each person is in charge of their own body.”

Like Dr. Thomas, Baxter does recommend that cancer patients talk to their doctor before starting any workout routine.

But both want cancer patients to not fear exercising if it is appropriate for them. The point that Dr. Thomas hopes patients remember is that engaging in activity, rather than avoiding it, is what will actually help them feel better as they go through treatment.

“In my practice, I have seen benefits in terms of not only more energy but also overall better quality of life,” Dr. Thomas says. 

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