Cancer Institute A national cancer institute
designated cancer center

Physical Exercise

What is physical exercise?

Physical exercise involves movement of the body to achieve and maintain a healthy condition and state of physical fitness. People exercise for aerobic training, to increase strength, and/or to improve flexibility. Exercise is also used as therapy to restore the body to a state of health.

Can exercise help people with cancer?

Exercise is an effective activity for many people with cancer. Scientists are still learning about how physical activity helps cancer patients and what impact it has on the immune system. Too much inactivity could result in a loss of function. Most physicians agree that regular amounts of modest physical activity can benefit cancer patients.

Studies have shown that for some cancer patients regular physical activity can accomplish the following:

How does exercise work?

There is no specific amount of exercise suggested for a person with cancer. The type and amount of exercise that is appropriate for you depends on your unique abilities.

Overall, exercise should make your heart work harder than normal. It is important to be able to monitor your heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle fatigue. Your physician can show you how, and can help you choose the kinds of activity that will be most beneficial, including exercise to help you build endurance and strength, and keep your body flexible and functioning properly.

Any exercise program should following these basic guidelines:

It is wise to exercise moderately. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that you exercise regularly, three to five days a week, but start slowly. ACSM recommends that you start with 15 minutes at a time and gradually build up until you reach anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes per session. An alternative approach includes 30 minutes of brisk activity in 10-minute segments, with short breaks in between. If that is too much, try 5 minutes of exercise three times a day, slowly adding 1 minute to each session until you can exercise for 10 minutes at a time.

Your daily routine can also provide opportunities for exercise. Walking around your neighborhood after dinner, walking the dog, washing the car, and raking leaves are all activities that can help to build strength, maintain energy, and contribute to your overall well-being.

Are there any possible problems or complications associated with exercise?

Problems or complications are possible if you exercise above a level of exertion that is inappropriate for you. That is why it is important for you to plan an exercise program with your physician. Be sure to also visit the American Cancer Society Web site for a list of exercise “do’s and don’ts” for people with cancer.

Exercise, as an addition to your cancer treatment plan, has the potential to be pleasant and productive, but should not replace the care and treatment provided by your cancer care team. Always consult your physician for more information.

Warnings regarding exercise:

Do not exercise:

Precautions to consider as you exercise:

Stanford Medicine Resources:

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