How to Approach Exercise After a Cancer Diagnosis

By Cathy Skinner, MA

In response to emerging research, more healthcare organizations are recommending exercise for cancer patients. Individuals respond uniquely to their cancer, to the treatments, and to exercise. As a result, individuals diagnosed with cancer need a program that can be customized and constructed to meet their needs. When a patient considers a cancer recovery exercise program, I encourage them to find one that inspires preventative wellness as a key part of recovery, empowering them to develop lifelong, sustainable habits of self-care and wellness. But the critical first step patients should take is to talk with their health care team before beginning an exercise program, to make sure the program that they are considering is appropriate for them.

Exercise Barriers

For many cancer patients and survivors, the greatest barrier to exercise is that unimaginable fatigue that frequently accompanies diagnosis and treatment. It may appear counterintuitive, but movement and exercise have been shown to decrease feelings of fatigue.[1]Exercise releases hormones such as endorphins and serotonin which trigger the brain and body to feel elated, energized, and happy. In fact, the American Cancer Society advocates that cancer patients “avoid inactivity.” [2]

Another barrier to exercise is fear. Even if a survivor exercised prior to diagnosis, fear can be a byproduct of not knowing what to do after treatment. Survivors may ask: What are my capabilities? What are my limits? Will I be able to perform at the same level? Will I experience the same benefits? Some people take the cancer diagnosis as a death sentence and rationalize that they need not or cannot devote any more time or energy to their physical well-being.

There is a certain level of body awareness that comes with a history of exercise. If exercise is new to a person, he or she will have to grow to understand what a sore muscle feels like versus what an injured muscle feels like. Furthermore, if people have negative associations with exercise, there may be additional mental and emotional hurdles to overcome before getting started. Closely linked to fear is depression. Exercise also can act as an antidepressant; used alone or together with medication, it can have powerfully positive results.

Cancer Side Effects

Some treatments, such as chemotherapy, can cause neurological damage that resembles Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or brain damage. According to the American Cancer Society, 4 percent of people who had chemotherapy experience a side effect called “chemo brain.”
This mental fog includes impairments such as short-term memory loss, the inability to multitask, diminished word recall, the inability to finish tasks in a timely manner, and trouble concentrating. Exercise can assist in rewiring the neurological system and help the body and brain find new ways to function. According to studies at MD Anderson Center at the University of Texas, even five minutes a day of moderate aerobic activity can improve mental function in cancer patients.[3]

An Exercise Plan

Cancer patients should plan to exercise three to six days per week. To begin an exercise session, a warm-up of at least 5 minutes is recommended; however, any patient who suffers from irregular vasomotor symptoms (i.e. overheating, hot flashes, etc.) should extend their warm-up to 10 minutes. Warm-up options include walking, jogging, rowing, biking, dynamic stretching, and other activities. Patients are encouraged to do strength training that follows a three day per week routine on nonconsecutive training days. On alternating days, participants are encouraged to be physically active for at least 20 minutes with activities that build their cardiovascular system such as walking, biking, jogging, etc.

Costs of Cancer v. Benefits of Exercise

I recommend cancer survivors look for an exercise programthat requires very little equipment and can be started with a few simple exercises in a survivor’s home. More importantly, find a program designed for survivors to grow in self-efficacy and empowerment; thus, creating a sustainable, healthy lifestyle.


Cathy Skinner Bio

As a Cancer Exercise Specialist, Skinner has provided exercise and wellness training for cancer survivors since 2008. She was the first certified ACSM Cancer Exercise Specialist in MN. Skinner is a Master teacher for ACSM and she authored The Art of Well’s Exercise for Cancer Recovery™. Skinner teaches classes, speaks at support groups and conferences about the value of exercise for cancer recovery. You can contact Cathy on her website at


[1]New Guidelines Strongly Recommend Exercise for Cancer Patients, Survivors.” ACSM In The News (1 Aug. 2011): n. pag. Web. <http://www. new-guidelines-strongly-recommend-exercise-for-cancer-patients- survivors

[3]Chemo Brain.” MD Anderson Center (2013): n. pag. Web. <http://www. cancer-topics/dealing-with-cancer-treatment/chemobrain/index.htm



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