According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 1 in 25 Americans are now cancer survivors. This number shows how prevalent the disease is, and has also prompted experts to look at the ways patients can improve their health, quality of life, and chances of survival.

Exercise for Cancer Patients

Because of the physical toll cancer (and its treatment) takes on the human body, patients who are treating cancer may wonder if exercise is even safe.

In 2012, a panel convened by the American Cancer Society concluded that, not only is exercise safe during cancer treatment, it can help improve physical functioning, fatigue, and multiple quality of life factors for patients.

Other studies have even suggested that exercise may help increase survival rates among patients with malignant recurrent glioma (an aggressive brain cancer), breast, and colon cancers.

"I would strongly hypothesize that the benefits from exercise—particularly for improving quality of life-would extend to all cancers," said Melinda Irwin, PhD, MPH, Yale School of Medicine, at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Association of Cancer Research.

These conclusions are not that surprising, given the well-established benefits of physical activity. The National Cancer Institute says that exercise helps:

  • Control weight
  • Maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints
  • Reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes
  • Reduce the risk of death from heart disease and premature death
  • Promote psychological well-being

Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors—and Everyone Else

The American College of Sports Medicine strongly recommends the following exercise guidelines for people with cancer and cancer survivors, which are the same guidelines that apply to the general public:

  • Adults 18 to 64 should engage in 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity every week. Sessions should last at least 10 minutes, and should be spread throughout the week, if possible. (Brisk walking would be an example of aerobic exercise.)
  • Adults should also practice strength training of the major muscle groups at least twice a week.
  • Adults over 65 should follow these recommendations if possible or as ability allows.
  • People with anemia, compromised immune function, severe fatigue, or other conditions may need to wait or make accommodations.
  • A physician should be consulted before beginning an exercise program.

Monisha Singh, MD, an oncologist with Houston Methodist Cancer Center, reviewed this article.


Emily Ruden, David A. Reardon, April D. Coan, James E. Herndon II, Whitney E. Hornsby, Miranda West, Diane R. Fels, Annick Desjardins, James J. Vredenburgh, Emily Waner, Allan H. Friedman, Henry S. Friedman, Katherine B. Peters, and Lee W. Jones, "Exercise Behavior, Functional Capacity, and Survival in Adults With Malignant Recurrent Glioma," Journal of Clinical Oncology 29 (21) (2011): 2918-2923, doi:10.1200/JCO.2011.34.9852.

Ruud Knols, Neil K. Aaronson, Daniel Uebelhart, Jaap Fransen, and Geert Aufdemkampe, "Physical Exercise in Cancer Patients During and After Medical Treatment: A Systematic Review of Randomized and Controlled Clinical Trials," Journal of Clinical Oncology 23(16) (2005): 3830-3842, DOI: 10.1200/JCO.2005.02.148.

Cheryl L. Rock, PhD, RD, Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, PhD, RD, Jeffrey Meyerhardt, MD, MPH, Kerry S. Courneya, PhD, Anna L. Schwartz, FNP, PhD, FAAN, Elisa V. Bandera, MD, PhD, Kathryn K. Hamilton, MA, RD, CSO, CDN, Barbara Grant, MS, RD, CSO, LD, Marji McCullough, ScD, RD, Tim Byers, MD, MPH, Ted Gansler, MD, MBA, MPH, "Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines for Cancer Survivors," CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 62 (2012): 242-274, DOI: 10.1002/cncr.27433.

National Cancer Institute, "Physical Activity and Cancer," July 22, 2009, accessed February 14, 2014.

Zosia Chustecka, "AACR 2009: Oncologists Should Recommend Exercise, But Not Supplements," Medscape Medical News, April 23, 2009, accessed February 14, 2014.

MD Holmes, WY Chen, D Feskanich, CH Kroenke, GA Colditz. "Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis." Journal of the American Medical Association 2005; 293(20):2479-2486.

JA Meyerhardt, EL Giovannucci, MD Holmes, et al. "Physical activity and survival after colorectal cancer diagnosis." Journal of Clinical Oncology 2006; 24(22):3527-3534.