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A physical therapist educates a cancer survivor on the benefits of exercise.

Studies show that physical activity and exercise can provide short- and long-term benefits for people undergoing cancer treatment. 

Each year, there are about 1.7 million new cancer cases, and 600,000 people will die from cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Physical inactivity appears to contribute to these numbers. People having cancer treatment and cancer survivors should keep a consistent level of physical activity. Doing so can decrease fatigue, improve the ability to do daily tasks, and improve the quality of life in general.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, engaging in physical activity can improve a person's chances of surviving or living longer with some cancers, including bladder, breast, colon, lung, and prostate. For cancer survivors, being active also can help them to better manage many cancer-related problems. Unfortunately, the vast majority of cancer survivors (and those without cancer) do not meet physical activity guidelines that could help them enjoy these benefits.

Physical therapists can tailor treatment plans to target a cancer survivor's specific needs. They use physical activity to help manage the side effects of treatment, such as pain, fatigue, reduced balance, strength, and endurance. They also work with cancer survivors to:

  • Improve their overall health and function.
  • Assist them in their return to work and doing their regular daily activities.
  • Reduce their risk of cancer recurrence.

Exercise during cancer treatment can help you to:

1. Reduce or minimize fatigue.

Exercise helps boost energy and endurance and reduces fatigue.

2. Maintain muscle strength.

Safely engaging in exercise activities, particularly weight training types of exercises, can help keep your muscles strong and even increase their strength. This makes movement less difficult and reduces fatigue.

3. Reduce stress. 

Exercising can help ward off anxiety, fear, and depression.

4. Control or reduce lymphedema and swelling.

Physical therapists can provide special treatments to address lymphedema and swelling if it occurs.

5. Reduce pain.

Studies show that safe and comfortable exercise done regularly can be effective in reducing pain.

6. Prevent and reduce weight gain.

Staying physically active can help you maintain a healthy weight during treatment and return to an optimal weight after treatment.

7. Reduce brain fog.

Exercise has an immediate and long-lasting effect in reducing brain fog.

8. Reduce bone density loss.

Certain exercises done while standing and moving can stimulate your bones to stay healthy and strong, helping to avoid fractures.

9. Improve the survival rate.

Research suggests that consistent physical activity or exercise during cancer treatment may improve the outcome of that treatment.

10. Assist athletes to continue sports training.

Athletes undergoing cancer treatment may not have to give up their sport. A physical therapist can design a safe and effective exercise plan that works with your cancer treatment plan. This plan can help limit strength loss and maintain aerobic capacity. Following this type of plan can help athletes return to play as quickly as possible.

For real health benefits, adults should do at least 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise. Walking briskly while being able to talk but not sing is an example of moderate-intensity exercise. As an alternative, you can do 75 to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise (such as jogging). Or you can do an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Adults with chronic conditions or disabilities, including a history of cancer, should try to meet these guidelines. If you cannot meet them, you should still engage in regular physical activity that fits your abilities. You also should avoid inactivity and move as much as possible throughout each day.

Physical therapists are movement experts. They improve quality of life through hands-on care, patient education, and prescribed movement. You can contact a physical therapist directly for an evaluation. To find a physical therapist in your area, visit Find a PT.

Find a PT Near You

For more information and resources, visit our health center on physical therapy for cancer-related problems.

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Austin PD, Lee W, Costa DS, Ritchie A, Lovell MR. Efficacy of aerobic and resistance exercises on cancer pain: A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Heliyon. 2024;10(7):e29193. Published 2024 Apr 6. Article Summary in PubMed.

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