How to Exercise for Cancer


Oncologists previously told cancer patients to stay away from exercise.

They cautioned patients to stay away because they thought increased blood flow would cause the cancer cells to circulate and, thus, spread.

Later, it was found out this was not true. Still, less than 5% of cancer patients are referred to a cancer rehabilitation program, and 88% of patients did not even receive education on the importance of exercise during treatment, according to this study.

Cardiovascular (aerobic) and strength (resistance) training are the two most significant components of fitness researched and highlighted to see improvements in cancer patients. It can help improve survivors’ quality of life during and after treatment and overall physical fitness.

The Heart and Blood Vessels

Aerobics is one of the main components of an exercise prescription for a person with cancer.

There is still much research to do in this field, but “preliminary results show that engaging in moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise of at least 75 to 150 minutes a week, plus resistance exercise twice a week, reduces the risk of mortality from breast, colon, and prostate cancers by between 40% and 50%, which is significant” (Cavallo).

At least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity is recommended. This can include walking, light cycling, yoga, tai chi, or water exercise. At least 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity is recommended. This can include brisk walking, singles tennis, playing basketball, or heavier cycling.

A person can also do a combination of both moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity exercise. Aerobic exercise, in general, is recommended to be done 3-5 days a week, for at least 10 minutes at a time.

The Muscles

Strength training is the second major part of the equation of an exercise prescription for a person with cancer.

“Strength training is important for people with cancer because it builds muscle. Muscle tissue plays a big role in balance, fatigue, and quality of life. Muscle may also be important to processing chemotherapy drugs… Plus, strength training can make daily activities like lifting laundry baskets or yard work easier and safer.”

Strength training is recommended to be done for 2-3 days a week with a rest day in between. People with a cancer diagnosis should start with 6-15 repetitions of an exercise. They can increase weight when they can do 15 reps. The focus of these strength exercises will be on the major muscle groups.

Other Focuses

Even though aerobic activity and strength training are the primary focus for cancer patients, there are other components of fitness that they may benefit from and enjoy.

Flexibility training (static stretching) is recommended for at least 2-3 days a week with 10-30 second holds.

Balance is an area that can also be benefitted from being worked on.

Getting Started

The most important thing is to reduce sedentary time. Being active can be fun or part of daily living, such as raking leaves or gardening.

Many programs are trying to help make it easier for clinicians to provide tools and resources to patients and for patients to seek these tools and facilities out themselves.

The Moving Through Cancer Initiative is a website that helps providers in this area. It refers patients to places where their questions can be answered and proper exercise programs can be provided. Maple Tree Cancer AllianceLivestrongEASECTTS (if you’re in Texas), MOVECANcer-VIVE, and Survivor Fitness are all nonprofits dedicated to education, support, and offering free services or tools for exercise to cancer survivors.

If you want to learn more, there is also a great book on this topic, Moving Through Cancer.

Of course, you should always speak with your provider before starting an exercise program. There may be some limitations or restrictions caused by treatments or surgeries. Generally speaking, though, exercise is always beneficial.

Other Resources:

“Being Active When You Have Cancer –” Exercise Is Medicine,

Cavallo, Jo. “How Exercise Oncology Can Improve Cancer Outcome and Survivorship.” The ASCO Post, 25 Mar. 2020,

Mustian, Karen M, et al. “Exercise for the Management of Side Effects and Quality of Life among Cancer Survivors.” Current Sports Medicine Reports, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2009,

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