Why Exercise can be Beneficial During Cancer Treatment

Mild forms of workouts during cancer treatment can help fight fatigue and depression, experts say. Try these five ideas, if you’re feeling well enough

Photo: woman with cancer outside

During cancer treatment, lacing up your sneakers and working up a sweat might seem like the last thing you want to, or even should, do. 

However, it turns out that exercising during cancer treatment might be one of the best things you can do for your body and mind. According to the American Cancer Society, exercise can help eliminate fatigue and depression during cancer treatment. It can also decrease the chances of post-treatment cancer recurrence. 

For Fitz Koehler, a fitness expert in Gainesville, Florida, who has a master’s degree in exercise and sport sciences, exercise was an escape after she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2019. 

“Exercise was the only piece of sanity and control that I had during the very stressful time between diagnosis and the start of chemo,” she explains, noting that exercise played an important role in helping her cope with her emotions. 

Of course, if anyone could stay fit during breast cancer treatment, it would be a fitness professional like Koehler. But, as can happen to any breast cancer patient, chemotherapy treatment impacted her ability to work out at the intensity she was used to, prior to her diagnosis. And since she knew friends who were going through chemo who were still running races, she was surprised at how her body reacted to the treatment. 

“With my first chemo, I felt off for a couple of days and then I felt violently ill,” recalls Koehler.

At first, Koehler managed to get in whatever exercise she could during the moments she didn’t feel too ill. “I focused mostly on stretching, strength training, and balance exercises, because cardio was a little too taxing for me,” says Koehler, a former competitive kickboxer. 

Then, chemo began to take its toll. At one point during her treatment, all she could do was walk her dog a single block. And, following her fourth chemo round, the only exercise Koehler could do was stretch. 

But for Koehler, that was more than enough. “From the very first chemo, my muscles would freeze up and be extremely tight. So, I would do a lot of stretches when I felt motivated enough,” she says. 

What Type of Exercise Should I Do During Chemo? 

Even for a fitness professional like Koehler, exercising during cancer treatment can be a challenge. While some patients can continue exercising at the same level they usually do, for others, managing to walk across the room can be an undertaking. “Every cancer treatment experience is as unique as a snowflake,” she notes. 

As you go through your breast cancer treatment, there may be times when you can barely manage to move, says Koehler, and that’s okay. If you feel extreme sickness and fatigue, it’s important to listen to your body and rest. 

But on days where you feel well enough, it helps to try to move––even if it’s as seemingly easy as walking or doing simple stretches. 

“Everything counts,” stresses Koehler. “Maybe you can’t exercise at the same intensity that you used to before treatment, but if you can do something, anything, it helps,” she says. 

On days when you’re feeling up to exercising, Koehler recommends focusing on one, or multiple, of the following five exercise ideas. Increase the amount of time and intensity of the exercises, as you start to feel capable to do so.

1. Get Your Heart Pumping 

Something as simple as dancing around the house with your kids qualifies as cardio, says Koehler. Or go for a gentle walk or swim. “Whether you’re injured or ailing in some regard, the pool is a place where your weight becomes a non-factor,” says Koehler. “The pool is a tremendous place to accomplish a whole heck of a lot of fitness in terms of mobility and cardiovascular and calorie burning… It should be everyone’s first choice when they get the opportunity.”

2. Build Muscle Strength

For strength training, use light weights, resistance bands, or just your own body weight (as in squats or modified push-ups). Pilates is also a good choice, says Koehler, because most of the time you’re on the ground, so it helps if you’re not feeling as steady on your feet. Pursuing simple exercises that target your entire body are a great choice— think squats, lunges, or modified push-ups. Planking (holding yourself up in push-up position) is a fantastic choice for abdominal muscles. Bridges are important for preventing back pain, so lie your back on the ground, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift your hips up high so your shoulders, hips, and knees form a straight line. Hold this position for 30-60 seconds and relax. Repeat several times.

3. Boost Your Flexibility 

Try touching your toes, reaching for the sky, and doing stretches off the edge of your bed or off the side of your couch. Koehler likes to use a foam roller and an exercise ball to stretch her abdominal and hip muscles. Just lie down on top of them and allow the arching shape to support a back or abdominal stretch. She also recommends stretching in the shower, something she does often while listening to uplifting music. “The warm water loosens me up a bit,” she says.

4. Work on Balance 

Balance often gets overlooked, but it’s critical during cancer treatment, says Koehler. “If you fall down and get hurt, everything in your world is going to get that much more challenging.” Balance training includes exercises that involve standing on one foot, she says. Lunges are also great for balance work because they tax the stability of your ankles, knees, and hips. “If you’re really wobbly, you can stand on one foot while gently holding on to the countertop so you don’t fall,” says Koehler.

5. Strike a Pose 

For an exercise that boosts flexibility and strength, all while helping to calm your mind, Koehler stresses doing yoga. “Yoga is often a go-to for exercise for cancer patients,” she says. “It is often less intimidating than weight training or running, and it is something that can give you confidence and relieve stress,” she says.

Through each stage, it’s important to discuss your exercise plans with your cancer care team. Exercise can be particularly dangerous if you’ve recently had surgery, as you can be at risk for damaging sutures or soft tissue. 

As for Koehler, she is looking forward to the day when she can work out again—as usual. Recently, she felt well enough (after 12 weeks of not exercising) to walk her dog again. “I was so proud of me and happy for my furry best friend when we went on that walk.”