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Benefits of Exercise

Nancy Campbell, MS
Campbell is an exercise physiologist who offers fitness consults and classes to cancer survivors through Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Adult Survivorship Program and Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies.

There are many benefits to exercising both during and after cancer treatment. In 2009 the American College of Sports Medicine published their recommendations that all cancer survivors should strive to avoid inactivity. Since then, more research has continued to emphasize this point and show potential reductions in cancer recurrence. Also, evidence suggests that exercise can have a beneficial impact on body weight, overall fitness, muscle strength, flexibility and quality of life, as well as on symptoms such as pain and fatigue.

1. Start Low & Go Slow

Before you start exercising, you should check in with your medical team to make sure they don’t have any concerns. Once they have given you clearance, it is important to start slowly. As you are starting to establish a routine, I recommend finishing your routine knowing you could have done a little bit more. Set yourself up for success and make your activity enjoyable and not exhausting.

Fatigue is one of the most common and frustrating side effects of treatment and exercise is one of the most helpful ways to help you have more energy. It seems counterintuitive, but even a short walk around your house or to the end of the driveway and back can help take the edge off the fatigue. As you get stronger, you may find that breaking up your exercise into two or three 10-minute bouts over the course of the day is helpful.

2. Set Goals & Keep Track

There are so many ways to keep track of your progress with exercise. Maybe it’s a calendar on your refrigerator or an activity tracker that you wear and monitor your exercise on a website or phone app. The main goal of tracking is to keep you aware of how much activity you are getting and remind you of the importance. Focusing on the consistency piece, instead of the duration or intensity will help your body get adjusted to incorporating activity into your lifestyle. As your body is recovering from treatment, you want to avoid doing a big bout of activity that leaves you exhausted and unable to exercise again a day or two later. Listening to your body will make it easier to progress and get stronger.

Many survivors find it helpful to set a daily or weekly exercise goal to keep them on track. Make sure that your goal is S.M.A.R.T; Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. For example, instead of “I will exercise more” saying “I will walk on Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning from 10 to 10:20 am.” Setting goals like this will help with accountability and focusing on small changes to help reach your wellness goals.

3. Decrease Sedentary Time

Exercise should also be more than an event in your day; the goal is to stay as active as possible throughout your day. Look for creative ways to add more movement into your day. Many of the activity trackers on the market will buzz when you have been inactive for more than an hour. You could also set a reminder in your computer to get up every hour or download an app that will buzz and remind you to move. As few as 250 steps an hour, or 2-3 minutes of walking can help with fatigue and the harmful effects of being sedentary. Try parking further away when you are running errands, taking the stairs or getting off the bus one stop earlier and walking.

4. Look for Resources

All the positive research around exercise and cancer has led to the design of many different programs to help survivors stay active. For example, many of the YMCAs across the country offer the Livestrong exercise program, which is specifically designed for cancer survivors. It is a free 12-week program that incorporates cardiovascular exercise, strength training and stretching. You could also look into programs at your local hospital or wellness center to see if they have movement classes that are designed for survivors. If you are struggling with side effects from treatment like neuropathy, it may be beneficial to meet with a physical or occupational therapist to help with modifications.

Many hospitals are now researching exercise and have clinical trials that you may be eligible for to help you get started or stay motivated. You can find trials by visiting and entering “exercise and survivors” in the search box.

5. Respect Your Body

Be kind to your body as you are undergoing or recovering from treatment and starting to exercise. I always say, 10% of something is better than 100% of nothing.