Nutrition Spotlight: Physical Activity During Cancer, what’s the Story?

Virginia Cancer Specialists Practice Blog

August 07, 2023
Virginia Cancer Specialists » VCS Practice News » Nutrition Spotlight » Nutrition Spotlight: Physical Activity During Cancer, what’s the Story?

The benefits of physical activity and your cancer diagnosis.


You’re probably accustomed to staying in bed when you are sick and recovering, rather than working out. While some exercise enthusiasts may push through, they are in the minority. Most of us pull back, listen to our bodies, and conserve energy for healing.

Cancer, however, follows different rules than your typical virus. Not only is being active one factor in the prevention of cancer, it is also thought to be beneficial while undergoing cancer treatment.

Specifically, physical activity may help with:

  • Side effects of cancer and treatment. For instance, exercise can help alleviate constipation, as well as increase appetite in patients who are not interested in eating. Additionally, it can prevent lymphedema (swelling caused by a build up of lymph fluid in the body) in breast cancer patients.
  • Treatment tolerance and outcomes. Exercise has been shown to affect tumor progression and help patients tolerate treatments. Additionally, it has been shown to bolster recovery from surgery.
  • Strengthening the immune system. By its very nature, physical activity is known to support a healthy immune system.
  • Fatigue. Physical activity not only reduces fatigue, but increases a feeling of energy in many individuals.
  • Depression and anxiety. Having cancer can cause or exacerbate existing depression and anxiety and exercise can help.
  • Sleep. While helpful, consider how factors such as when activity is performed, type, amount, etc. can affect the ability to fall asleep and sleep well.
  • Muscle strength and bone health. These benefits are a direct effect of performing weight-bearing exercise.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight. Weight is associated with risk for several cancers. While physical activity can reduce risk independent of weight, it also can help with weight control.
  • Improving quality of life. This can be a result of any or all the above. And, last, but certainly not least…
    Decreasing risk of cancer returning.


The American Cancer Society’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Guideline for Cancer Survivors recommends:

  1. Avoiding inactivity and resuming normal daily activities as soon as possible after cancer diagnosis and treatment;
  2. Being regularly physically active;
  3. Starting slowly and building up over time;
  4. Working toward 150-300 minutes of moderate (or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity) physical activity weekly;
  5. Exercising several times per week for at least 10 minutes each; and
  6. Including resistance training and stretching exercises each on at least two days per week.

Keep in mind that your ability to work out during treatment may be affected by your type and stage of cancer, your treatment, and/or fitness level before and during treatment. The key is to make sure you are initiating or continuing activity in a way that is beneficial to you, so check with your physician, nurse, and/or dietitian to make sure you are doing so safely and considering all the factors that may be associated with your situation.


Shelley Maniscalco

Registered Dietitian

Virginia Cancer Specialists Registered Dietitians