According to the National Cancer Institute, almost 3-of-10 people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. While the survival rate continues to rise, exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of recurrence in cancer patients. Regular vigorous physical activity can also improve mood, sleep, and energy levels while lessening anxiety and treatment-related side effects. Sam Mayercik had thyroid cancer in 2006 and remembers how much a simple walking routine helped her, “I knew it was a big part of my healing.”

Accommodate the Healing Process

While movement is good for the body, the side effects of cancer treatments can make it tricky to maintain an exercise routine, so it may require a few tweaks. Decreased muscle elasticity, strength, and endurance along with an altered sense of balance and coordination are common. To what degree they happen can vary by age, level of fitness, and cancer treatment protocol.

Lori Stoll started treatment for stage 3 breast cancer in early 2018. She recalls, “I felt weak after treatments, so my body had to go slow and take it easy even though my mind wanted to run and lift like I did prior [to treatment].” Instead of pushing for a personal record, Lori focused on giving her body what it needed and made a full recovery.

3 Strategies to Move

Resistance training can help preserve muscle and bone mass during and after treatment. Focus on large muscle groups using compound movements like squats, lunges, deadlifts, pushing, and pulling. Gentle yoga, tai chi, or Pilates are easy on the body and can help you regain flexibility and coordination. Since cancer is a disease of inflammation, these antiinflammatory activities are a great way to curb it and help the body find balance.

Aerobic activity such as water aerobics, walking, cycling, or running help build mitochondria, the fuel cells in the body that convert energy stored in fatty tissues. Studies have linked increased mitochondria with lower incidences of cancers and cysts. Aerobic exercise also helps build endurance and good circulation.

Be Patient With Your Body

Don’t be surprised if workouts feel a lot harder than they used to. Muscles aren’t as strong or elastic, endurance is lower, and postworkout recovery tends to take longer. Surgical scars can also pose challenges because those tissues are less flexible and can be tender. Certain movements such as pushing and pulling can be tricky due to limited mobility. Be mindful of how movements feel around scars, ports, or surgical reconstructions. Stretching and self-massage are great options for rest days.

Patients report feeling dramatically different day to day, with fluctuating energy levels or fatigue being the most common. While some can only manage to do routine activities, others are able to do more. “Some days I could not walk across the room. It was total exhaustion,” says Karen Mathis, who recovered from uterine cancer in 2019. “Other days I felt good but would tire out just doing normal things.”

Try not to expect too much of yourself. It can be hard to predict how your body will respond to treatment. Energy levels, strength, and endurance will likely fluctuate, so be flexible in your routine.

To get help staying consistent, lean on a workout buddy or fitness professional (keeping in mind COVID protocols). Online trainers offer safe and effective workouts if you’re immunocompromised.

4 Tips To Start An Exercise Routine

  • Start off easy and listen to your body
  • Focus on staying consistent and choose activities you will enjoy
  • Note how you feel during and after exercise before making adjustments.
  • Increase exercise frequency, intensity, and duration slowly, since the body takes longer to adapt during treatment

Gary Berglund, a certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, yoga teacher, and nutrition coach, is the founder of Omnifunction, an online fitness, and nutrition coaching brand that embraces a non-diet mindset and the practice of exercise to enhance quality of life. Gary uses behavioral change tactics and takes a Health At Every Size (HAES) approach to coach clients toward their goals. Connect at or on Instagram and Facebook at @omnifunction.