Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Physical exercise

What is physical exercise?
Can exercise help people with cancer?
How does exercise work?
Are there any possible problems or complications associated with exercise?
Warnings regarding exercise
Precautions to consider as you 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 also is used as therapy to restore the body to a state of health.

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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:

  • Reduce anxiety or depression
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Improve blood flow to the legs and reduce the risk of blood clots
  • Reduce pain
  • Reduce diarrhea
  • Prevent osteoporosis
  • Reduce the risk of heart disease
  • Increase overall physical functioning
  • Reduce dependence on others for the activities of daily living
  • Improve self-esteem

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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:

  • Begin with two to three minutes of warm-up exercises (i.e., lifting arms, knee lifts and stretching).
  • Use large muscle groups through the use of aerobic activities such as walking or cycling.
  • Include exercises that strengthen muscles, such as using weights.
  • Include exercises that increase flexibility and movement in your joints such as shoulder and arm circles and stretching exercises.

It is wise to exercise moderately. The American College of Sports Medicine 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 five minutes of exercise three times a day, slowly adding one 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.

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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.

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Warnings regarding exercise

Do not exercise:

  • if your blood counts are low and you are at risk for infection, anemia and bleeding.
  • if the minerals in your blood, such as sodium and potassium, are not normal (this is likely to be the case if you have been vomiting or having diarrhea).
  • if you are taking treatments that affect your lungs or heart, or are at risk for lung or heart disease. Instead, consult your physician first, then watch for swollen ankles, sudden weight gain and shortness of breath.
  • if you have unrelieved pain, nausea, vomiting or other health concerns. Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.

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Precautions to consider as you exercise

  • Do not overexert your body if you are taking blood pressure medication that controls your heart rate.
  • Do not hold your breath, as this may put a strain on your heart.
  • Do not exercise on uneven surfaces that could cause you to fall.
  • If you have bone disease, poor vision, poor balance or weakness, do not use heavy weights or perform excessive weight-bearing exercises.
  • Watch for signs of internal or external bleeding if you are taking blood thinners.
  • If you have swelling, pain, dizziness or blurred vision, discontinue all exercise and call your physician immediately.

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