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- Exercise for people living with cancer (with videos)
- Treatment side effects and exercise
Treatment side effects and exercise
Exercise for people living with cancer should be tailored to suit the type and stage of cancer and any side effects.
Learn more about:
How exercise can ease common side effects
Cancer treatment causes various physical effects that are different for different people. Exercise has been shown to help ease some of these.
Why exercise can help
|fatigue||Losing fitness can make fatigue worse, but low intensity exercise can help you stay fit (unless you have severe anaemia, see below). Try to keep active and build your muscles and adjust how hard and often you exercise. Some people find that short, frequent aerobic and cardio sessions are easier; others prefer strength and resistance training, where you can take a rest between sets. |
See Fatigue and cancer.
|anaemia||Low red blood cell and/or haemoglobin count is a common side effect of cancer treatment. Symptoms include unexplained tiredness and fatigue. Combined with good nutrition, exercise has been shown to improve anaemia. For mild or moderate anaemia, try low intensity exercise, with a gradual increase in intensity and/or duration. If anaemia is severe, ask an exercise professional about what exercise to avoid until it improves.|
|loss of muscle strength/muscle tightness||If muscles aren’t being used, they can get smaller and weaker. Lost muscle strength is a side effect of some hormone therapy and steroid treatment. Some treatments also leave muscles tight. Strength and resistance training improves muscle condition.|
|lymphoedema||Starting exercise early in treatment may reduce the risk of lymphoedema (swelling in a part of the body). A lymphoedema practitioner or exercise professional can develop a tailored exercise plan. After lymph node surgery, follow post-operative instructions for exercise and gradually return to activity. |
|mood changes||Feeling anxious or depressed during and after treatment is common. Exercise helps the brain to produce chemicals (e.g. endorphins, endocannabinoids) that improve your mood.|
|heart problems||Radiation therapy to the chest and some types of chemotherapy and targeted therapy drugs may damage the heart muscle, making it less effective at pumping your blood. Some hormone therapy drugs, low physical activity and poor nutrition may also increase the risk of heart problems. Aerobic and cardio exercise can help reduce the risk of long-term heart problems.|
|loss of bone strength||Cancer and its treatment, particularly hormone and radiation therapy, can have long-term effects on bone strength. Early menopause and reduced levels of physical activity may also cause bones to weaken and break more easily (osteoporosis). Resistance training and exercises where you support your own body weight can help keep your bones strong.|
|joint pain||Some hormone therapy and cancer treatments can cause joint pain. Exercise can improve muscle size and strength, flexibility and range of motion, and increase your ability to move, which can help protect your joints and reduce pain.|
|weight gain||Weight gain is a common side effect of many treatments, including some types of hormone therapy, and steroids given to manage the side effects of chemotherapy or immunotherapy. People with cancer may also gain weight due to inactivity. Exercise can help you manage weight gain and assist in weight loss, when necessary.|
|quality of life||Studies show that physical activity can help improve wellbeing, sexuality, brain fog, sleep issues, anxiety, fatigue, pain and how you feel about yourself in general.|
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Kirsten Adlard, Accredited Exercise Physiologist, The University of Queensland, QLD; Dr Diana Adams, Medical Oncologist, Macarthur Cancer Therapy Centre, NSW; Grace Butson, Senior Physiotherapist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kate Cox, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Wai Yin Chung, Consumer; Thomas Harris, Men’s Health Physiotherapist, QLD; Clare Hughes, Chair of Cancer Council’s Nutrition, Alcohol and Physical Activity Committee; Jen McKenzie, Level 1 Lymphoedema Physiotherapist, ESSA Accredited Exercise Physiologist, The McKenzie Clinic, QLD; Claudia Marck, Consumer; Dr David Mizrahi, Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Research Fellow, The Daffodil Centre at Cancer Council NSW and The University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Rob Newton, Professor of Exercise Medicine, Exercise Medicine Research Institute, Edith Cowan University, WA; Jason Sonneman, Consumer.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.