Health Topics

Exercising with cancer: Crucial or crazy?


December 1, 2015

Learn how activity can help patients ease the side effects of chemotherapy.


Chemotherapy can be a life saver, but it’s not without side effects. When you feel weakness, fatigue and pain, exercise may sound crazy. But research shows it can actually curb those symptoms.

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network found that patients who exercised regularly experienced 40 percent to 50 percent less fatigue. Regular exercise also increases muscle strength, joint flexibility and general conditioning.

Karen Dyer, coordinator of health promotion programs at Vanderbilt Dayani Center for Health & Wellness, says exercise can help patients regain their strength and health. Also, controlled group exercises can offer friendly interactions for people who may otherwise be more isolated due to their treatments. Dyer notes there’s a camaraderie — for example, patients share information about restaurants and other places safe to go, immunity-wise. “They start friendships that they maintain,” she says.

The American Cancer Society says that while in the past doctors advised patients being treated for a chronic disease to rest and reduce physical activity, newer research shows exercise can improve a patient’s quality of life. The organization reports that regular exercise — as long as it doesn’t cause pain, rapid heart rate or shortness of breath — may help with the following during cancer treatment:

  • Keeping or improving your physical abilities (how well you can use your body)
  • Improving balance, lowering your risk of falls and broken bones
  • Keeping muscles from wasting due to inactivity
  • Lowering the risk of heart disease
  • Lessening the risk of osteoporosis (weak bones that are more likely to break)
  • Improving blood flow to your legs, lower the risk of blood clots
  • Making you less dependent on others for help with normal activities of daily living
  • Improving your self-esteem
  • Lowering the risk of being anxious and depressed
  • Lessening nausea
  • Improving your ability to keep social contacts
  • Lessening symptoms of tiredness (fatigue)
  • Helping you control your weight
  • Improving your quality of life

Patients should consult their physicians before starting any exercise routine.

Vanderbilt’s RESTORE Wellness Program for Stem Cell Transplant Patients helps those patients regain muscle mass lost through chemotherapy and prescribed steroids. “We do strength training with free weights and weight machines,” Dyer says. “We have them walk on the track, on the treadmill and do the elliptical trainers. We also have them participate in classes if they get further along. We do mind-body classes: tai chi and yoga, as well as a functional fitness class.

“Because these patients are immunosuppressed — they have no immune system — they must stay at or around the hospital for 100 days. During these 100 days, they’re pretty weak. They’ve been through high-dose chemotherapy, and a lot of them are on steroids that waste their muscles. We want to get our patients back up and moving again so when they go home after their 100 days they’ll be able to re-enter their lives and be able to do their daily activities.”

The effect of exercise isn’t just physical, she says.

“Psychologically, it’s really a boost for them to come exercise,” she says. “Fear is a huge barrier to them coming over here. They can’t be around crowds or in places that aren’t clean, so that’s why they can’t go to gyms and why they have it drilled in their head that they can’t be out in public.”


The Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center also offers fitness and gentle movement classes for adults currently in treatment for any type of cancer. Click here to learn more or sign up.