Exercise During Cancer Treatment: An Expert Q&A

May 11, 2017
Lee W. Jones, PhD

Dr. Lee W. Jones is Attending Physiologist in the Department of Medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He’s also Director of the Exercise-Oncology Research Program. His research program focuses on reducing the cardiovascular side effects of cancer treatment and preventing tumor growth. He has published numerous scientific articles and serves on several working groups at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

Common cancer treatments like surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy are effective, but their side effects can impact your recovery and how you feel during treatment. In the past, people with cancer were told to avoid physical activity, meaning any bodily movement, to help prevent those side effects. And any structured physical activity to improve health or cardiorespiratory fitness, i.e., exercise, was definitely out.

Today, research shows that not only is exercise during different types of cancer treatment safe—it can also have a number of benefits. share on twitter From decreasing your risk of treatment side effects to potentially making your treatment more effective at destroying tumor cells, moving your body is important to your health.

Common questions about exercising during cancer treatment

Ready to get started? First, read the information below. Then get approval and personalized recommendations from your health care team before you begin or continue any exercise program.

Q. Can you explain all of the exercise terminology to me?

A. Here are some helpful terms to know:

  • Type – What kind of exercise it is, e.g., walking, biking, running, strength training

  • Frequency – How many times per week you exercise

  • Intensity – How hard you exercise

  • Length – How long each exercise session is

Q. I’ve never really exercised. Is it okay for me to start during treatment?

A. Yes, if you start slow and build up appropriately. Begin by exercising 2 to 3 times per week, 10 to 20 minutes per session. Choose exercises that are low intensity, such as stretching, balance exercises, or walking.

Q. I’ve been exercising regularly. Can I keep with my routine during treatment?

A. Your goal should be to maintain your regular exercise routine as much as is possible. Read the questions below for tips on how to listen to your body and change your routine if you need to.

Q. When should I exercise?

A. Exercise on the days you have the most energy. Don’t feel guilty about missing a day. Rest and recovery are important aspects of exercise. Don’t push it on the days you feel wiped out or when you know that your blood counts are low.

Q. How much should I exercise?

A. Variety is key. Vary the intensity and duration of exercise. Rather than exercising at the same intensity and duration every time, exercise for a longer duration at a lower intensity on some days. On days when you feel particularly good, exercise for a shorter duration but at a slighter higher intensity. Mixing it up will help you get the most out of your workouts.

Q. Can I exercise on days when I receive treatment?

A. There’s no data to suggest that you can’t. Whether exercise on the day of your treatment may impact treatment effectiveness or tolerability hasn’t been investigated. However, research in mice has found that combining exercise and chemotherapy may be better at controlling tumor growth rates compared to chemotherapy alone.

Q. Where can I find support in maintaining or starting an exercise program during treatment?

A. Ask your doctor if there’s a nearby exercise rehabilitation program open to cancer survivors. Another option is to join a local LIVESTRONG at the YMCA program, a fitness program for cancer survivors.