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Physical activity during cancer treatment

Many doctors now encourage people with cancer to be as active as possible during treatment and recovery. Being active can reduce stress or anxiety, improve your mood and self-esteem, boost your energy, stimulate your appetite, help you sleep and help you regain your strength during recovery. Exercise can also help you reduce side effects like nausea, fatigue and constipation.

Exercise also helps you maintain a healthy body weight, which has many benefits. People who are able to maintain a healthy body weight are better able to handle treatment and its side effects, and they often recover faster. Studies have also shown that gaining weight during and after treatment can raise the risk of cancer coming back.

How much physical activity you can do during cancer treatment often depends on your overall health and physical condition, how you cope with treatment and what side effects you may have. Some people – for example, someone who has had breast surgery – may be given particular exercises to follow as part of their recovery.

Check with your doctor

You will need to check with your doctor before starting any exercise program. This is true even if you exercised regularly before being diagnosed. After your doctor has said it’s okay, you might also meet with a physical therapist or another healthcare professional with experience in this area. They can help you develop an exercise program that is safe, effective and fun for you.

Although exercise is safe for many people, there are some exceptions. For example, if you’re at risk for infection or anemia you may not be able to exercise. This is why you need to talk to your doctor before starting.

Safety precautions

Some general safety precautions for people with cancer include:

  • Don’t exercise if you have anemia or if mineral levels in your blood, such as sodium or potassium, are not normal.
  • Avoid public places, such as gyms, if you have low white blood cell counts or a weakened immune system.
  • Avoid uneven surfaces or any weight-bearing exercises that could cause falls or injury.
  • If you have osteoporosis, arthritis, nerve damage or cancer that has spread to the bone, do not use heavy weights or exercise that puts too much stress on the bones.
  • Avoid swimming pools if you are receiving radiation therapy as chlorine can irritate skin in the treatment area.

General exercise guidelines during treatment

Each person’s exercise program is unique and should be based on what is safe and works for that person. Your goal should be to maintain endurance, strength and flexibility and to keep you able to do the things you want to do. There may be times when you don’t feel able to exercise. The goal is to be as active as you comfortably can be. These tips may help:

  • Start slow. Start with something simple like walking and slowly increase how often and how long you walk.
  • Try exercising when you have the most energy or feel the best.
  • Try to exercise a little or do some type of activity each day, even if you are feeling unwell. Sometimes just a few minutes of gentle stretching can make you feel better.
  • If you don’t have the energy to exercise for a long period of time, break it up into a few shorter sessions throughout the day.
  • Try to include physical activity that uses large muscle groups such as your thighs, abdomen, chest and back.
  • Vary activities to include strength, flexibility and aerobic activities.
  • Try something new like yoga, tai chi or dancing.
  • Make exercise enjoyable by exercising with a friend or listening to music.
  • Try to remain active within your daily routine.
    • If you’re able, do housework such as vacuuming, washing floors and dusting. This is exercise, too. Try doing a little every day instead of all at once.
    • Mow the grass, wash the car or weed the garden.
    • Walk instead of drive or park your car in a parking space a distance from a building and walk to it.
    • Use the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Get some fresh air or try meditation exercises to help reduce fatigue and motivate you.
  • Drink plenty of fluids before, during and after exercise. Stop and rest when you’re tired.


Dr Shawn Li I’m extremely grateful to the Canadian Cancer Society for funding my research with an Innovation Grant.

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Cancer affects all Canadians

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Nearly 1 in 2 Canadians is expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.

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