Exercise has benefits during cancer treatment

woman showing arm muscles

Exercise. It may seem like the opposite of what you should do if you have cancer and are suffering from pain, nausea or cancer-related fatigue.

But, evidence-based research shows that people living with cancer can and should keep exercising or add some physical activity into their lives. Sunnybrook has introduced new exercise guidelines for people with cancer based on recommendations from Cancer Care Ontario.

“Exercise can give you more energy, help you sleep better, make your muscles stronger and improve your mood,” said Leslie Gibson, occupational therapist at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre.

Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation decrease strength and endurance, sometimes making it hard to complete day-to-day tasks. Participating in physical activity before surgery, or during and after chemotherapy or radiation can help. Being physically active helps keep your muscles strong and can maintain or improve your fitness level. And, it releases endorphins, brain chemicals that are known to improve mood and lift energy levels.

“I feel that endorphin release every time I drag myself to the gym, and then feel better and more energetic after I exercise,” said Joanna Mascarenhas, physiotherapist at Odette.

“Cancer is now a chronic disease for many people,” she added. “We now know that following the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines of 30 minutes of physical activity a day can improve quality of life for people living with cancer, and for those without cancer, too.”

Leslie and Joanna even prescribe exercise to some patients before their cancer surgery.

“We are finding patients who comply have shorter hospital stays. They are stronger going in, so they are stronger going out,” Leslie said.

For cancer-related fatigue, exercise is the #1 prescription.

“We want patients to balance rest and activity. Expending some energy actually makes your rest-time more restful,” Joanna said. “So, while it seems backwards, being more active actually helps with the fatigue.”

So if you are newly diagnosed with cancer, undergoing treatment or post-treatment, here are Leslie and Joanna’s tips for adding physical activity into your life.

Talk to your health-care provider before starting any new exercise routine.

Start slow.

Set a realistic goal and build from there. Try shorter bouts of exercise, like 10 minutes three times a day. You should be able to talk throughout the activity – that’s called “moderate intensity.” If you are working so hard you can’t carry on a conversation, that’s too hard. Slow it down.

Listen to your body.

“If you are in pain or out of breath, that’s your body’s way of telling you to take a break,” Joanna said. Don’t forget to warm up (with a slow, short walk) and cool down (another slow walk).

Anything is better than nothing.

“Look at your day,” Leslie said. “Where are the opportunities for you to add in a bit of physical activity?” This doesn’t necessarily mean full-blown, hit-the-gym-for-hours exercise. Park a little farther away. Take the stairs instead of the elevator if you are going up one flight. Walk to Starbucks instead of taking the car. This is called “lifestyle-based physical activity.”

It’s never too late.

“No matter your age or the stage of your diagnosis, adding some physical activity into your day can help you,” Joanna said. Improved strength, lower pain levels, better balance: these are all positive outcomes of exercise. Here are more.

Do what you love.

Choose an activity that’s enjoyable for you. If you don’t like running, don’t make running your goal! If you love being out in your garden, do that instead.

Find a buddy or a group.

For many people, exercising with a friend can help you stay motivated and make your new routine more sustainable. In many cities, there are free, supervised exercise groups for people living with cancer.

“These groups can help you stay motivated and help support you as there are other people on the cancer journey too,” Joanna said. “Plus, the classes are supervised by cancer exercise experts, so if you have questions or are nervous to get started, there’s support.” Check out this list for more info.



About the author

Alexis Dobranowski

Alexis Dobranowski is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.