To Be Physically Active or Not Physically Active During Cancer Treatment – That is the Question!

Virginia Cancer Specialists Practice Blog

June 04, 2020
Virginia Cancer Specialists » VCS Practice News » Dietitians » To Be Physically Active or Not Physically Active During Cancer Treatment – That is the Question!

To Be Physically Active or Not Physically Active During Cancer Treatment – That is the Question!

We often think of being active, physical activity, exercise, working out – whatever you want to call it – as being mostly applicable for general health (prevention of cancer and other chronic conditions), sports performance, and weight loss.  However, emerging research points to the benefits of being active prior to cancer diagnosis, during cancer treatment, and beyond.  See below for the answers to your most top-of-mind questions on the subject!

What role does physical activity play before, during, and after cancer treatment?

According to the American Institute for Cancer Research and World Cancer Research Fund, physical activity can be protective against developing cancer and, research shows, that there may be some cancers that are particularly responsive to exercise at varying intensities. We currently have strong evidence that physical activity decreases the risk of colorectal, endometrial, and pre- and post-menopausal breast cancers.  Limited evidence shows benefit in preventing esophageal, lung, and liver cancers.

Additionally, physical activity, as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, after treatment is recommended to bolster cancer survivorship.

How is exercise beneficial?

The answer to this question is multi-faceted.  Physical activity helps to prevent overweight and obesity – and excess weight is considered a significant risk factor for the development of cancer.  However, additional research is now showing that exercise is beneficial regardless of weight status, as being physically active can affect location and amount of fat stored in the body and impact hormones that drive cancer risk.

Is it ok to exercise while undergoing cancer treatment?

In short—yes, as long as your medical team agrees.  In fact, emerging evidence shows that it may be more than ok, it may be beneficial.  Animal studies are beginning to point to a cumulative benefit of physical activity and chemotherapy treatment.  In other words, the two together may improve treatment effectiveness more than just doing one or the other.

How much physical activity do I need?

The HHS Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend:

  1. Moving more than sitting throughout the day.
  2. At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity weekly (75 minutes of vigorous-intensity).
  3. For further benefits, strive for 300 minutes of physical activity spread throughout the week.
  4. Muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity, involving all major muscle groups, at least 2 times/week.

What if my physical activity is much different than normal while I’m going through treatment?

Many times, patients who have been very physically active have to dial it back.  Other patients who have not been physically active prior to treatment have a desire to get moving more.  The fact is, not much remains exactly the same while undergoing treatment for cancer. If you feel able to exercise, talk to your doctor or dietitian about types and intensities and they will advise you on the benefits and risks of doing so, based on your particular medical case.  If and when you are working out, make sure to listen to your body.

What more can I learn about exercise and cancer?

This is a hot topic for research investigation. Studies continue to be fielded and findings become available on an ongoing basis, so you can expect more news to come on this front! In the meantime, do what you can do and work up to more frequent or intense activity if you are able.  Alternate cardio, strength training, weight bearing, and flexibility exercises for best results!

Virginia Cancer Specialists Dietitian