Cancer and Exercise: Should Cancer Patients Work Out? by Anna L. Schwartz, FNP, Ph.D., FANN

Exercise should be a regular part of a comprehensive care plan for all cancer patients, regardless of age and physical ability. Anyone can exercise, if the exercise is tailored to the ability of each person and progresses slowly, in a step-by-step fashion. Cancer patients can, and should be encouraged to exercise the day they are diagnosed. The advice to get more rest is a myth, and not the best advice for cancer patients.

Exercise has many benefits for cancer patients, it not only helps them tolerate cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, it also helps them feel better physically and emotionally. Patients who have completed chemotherapy and are now looking towards survivorship, are often faced with many long-term side effects of treatment, and exercise can help manage many problems such as osteoporosis, weight gain and increased risks for heart disease.

The most important aspect of cancer treatment for patients is to learn to manage their side-effects. Although we know the general constellation of side- effects to expect with different treatment regimens, everyone is different. Once the patient becomes aware of their side-effects and how to manage them optimally, then exercise is feasible. Of course, if you are nauseated or experiencing pain, it is difficult to exercise. Therefore, it is important to take medication for nausea and pain which will make it possible to not only feel better, but to get up and move.

We are n now learning through scientific research that exercise is key to preventing the profound fatigue and weakness that patients experience during cancer treatments. Exercise keeps the body's muscles strong, flexible and the cardiovascular system fit and healthy. Resting more, and protecting oneself from physical activity actually has the opposite effect promoting the decline in physical ability that leads to fatigue, weakness and poor quality of life. Many patients tell me that they are too tired to exercise. It is a challenge to get up and move when one's body is consumed by fatigue, but this is the time when exercise can often help the most. Exercise will increase one's energy, and even help one to be mentally sharper.

Exercise doesn't have to be unpleasant, make you sweaty or make your heart race. Probably one of the biggest challenges to patients, young and old, fit and unfit, is to start slowly and progress even more slowly. Often, people think back to what they used to do and decide they can just resume their old exercise program, and they don't succeed because they aren't able to exercise at the intensity or for as long as they used to. For people who have never exercised before, they wonder where to start. Think about what you can do now. Can you walk around the block? Do you run, jog or swim? Start off exercising with what you can do easily. Try to exercise every other day at that same distance and intensity.

One day of the week increase how long you exercise, and keep the other days the same. The next week, add another day of increased exercise duration to your schedule. If you are not able to exercise more than two or three minutes at a time, break your exercise into small sessions of two minutes in the morning and another two minutes in the afternoon.

Science is showing us that exercise as little as 10 minutes a day can help to combat fatigue and improve your emotional outlook. As you get stronger, aim to exercise 20 to 30 minutes at least every other day. If are active and just diagnosed with cancer, continue exercising but reduce the length of time you exercise (duration) and the intensity. Really listen to your body and don&Mac226;t be afraid to cut your exercise in half. Your goal now is to maintain your fitness (or at least not let it drop off too much).

Exercise should be fun. Choose an activity that you enjoy. If you have friends or family to do the exercise with you will enjoy it more and be motivated to stick with the program. If you are choosing between aerobic exercise (walking, swimming, cycling), activities that have sustained movement, and resistance exercise (weight lifting), go for the aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise will keep your heart healthy and your muscles strong. It also seems to help improve mood and outlook on life more than resistance exercise.

For the ambitious exerciser, a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise is optimal because you can get fitter and faster and stronger. How often do we think of cancer patients getting fitter, faster and stronger? Well, times are changing and it's important to be proactive in your health care, ask your cancer care team to help you develop an exercise plan.

Anna Schwartz is a widely published and sought after speaker, providing dynamic keynote speeches and seminars about cancer and exercise, and achieving success in sport, health and life. She is the author of "Cancer Fitness." Contact her at; 866-806-6171, or visit