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Exercise and Cancer

Enhance Protection and Improve Recovery


Updated June 10, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Cancer takes many forms, and the outcomes after being diagnosed with cancer vary from terminal illness to very treatable conditions with consistent and positive results.

Maintaining good health while undergoing cancer treatments as diverse as chemotherapy and radiation is no doubt a challenge. Good nutrition and appropriate physical activity are a part of staying healthy. In fact, physical activity, including weight training, may have a particular role to play during and after treatment and in rehabilitation, especially for cancers in particular areas of the body.

Most importantly, physical activity is known to protect against certain cancers, such as bowel and breast cancer, and possibly prostate cancer. The primary protection mechanism may be exercise's role in regulating excess weight, but other mechanisms may also be involved.

How Physical Activity Helps

Physical activity helps people deal with cancer in a variety of ways:

  • Reduces the risk of certain cancers
  • Enhances the therapeutic effects of radiation and pharmaceutical treatments by increasing tolerance, reducing side effects, and lowering risk of chronic diseases, even those not aggravated by cancer treatment
  • Regular exercise after diagnosis can increase survival by 50-60% with the strongest evidence currently for breast and colorectal cancers
  • Moderate exercise boosts the immune system, which may help in the fight against cancer
  • Muscle-building exercise can help ameliorate the weight and muscle loss that often accompanies various cancers, and to which treatment may contribute
  • Physical activity can improve your mood, which is important in the treatment and recovery phase

Exercise Benefits During Cancer Treatment and Recovery

Exercise programs during cancer treatment often have very specific goals. For example, men are often treated with androgen suppression therapy for prostate cancer. Reducing the hormone testosterone helps because testosterone can promote prostate cancers. The result can be fat gain and muscle loss in these men. A weight training program can prevent some of this loss.

There is some evidence that physical activity can enhance survival for breast cancer patients. In a Yale School of Public Health Study of 4,643 women diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, high levels of physical activity improved survival in postmenopausal women with breast cancer, even among those reporting low physical activity prior to diagnosis.

In men being treated for prostate cancer, a weight training program produced a significant increase in muscle strength and endurance for the upper and lower body. Thigh quadricep muscle size increased significantly. There was also a significant improvement in physical performance in the chair rise, stair climbing, and walking tests.

How to Choose an Exercise Program

Because cancer is so specific to each individual, generic exercise programs are rarely suitable. In cancer treatment and recovery, your exercise regimen needs to be decided by your doctor or oncologist in collaboration with a qualified exercise physiologist. In recent years, weight training is being prescribed in addition to aerobic training to provide a more complete focus on conditioning and fitness.


Curr Treat Options Oncol. 2008 Jun;9(2-3):135-46. Exercise in prevention and management of cancer. Newton RU, Galvão DA.

Br J Cancer. 2011 Nov 8;105 Suppl 1:S52-73. The role of diet and physical activity in breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer survivorship: a review of the literature. Davies NJ, Batehup L, Thomas R.

Prostate Cancer Prostatic Dis. 2007;10(4):340-6. Exercise can prevent and even reverse adverse effects of androgen suppression treatment in men with prostate cancer. Galvão DA, Taaffe DR, Spry N, Newton RU.

Cancer Prev Res. 2011 Apr;4(4):522-9. Physical activity and survival in postmenopausal women with breast cancer: results from the women's health initiative. Irwin ML, McTiernan A, Manson JE, et al.

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