Living Long and Well with Cancer: Can Exercise Help?

Living Long and Well with Cancer: Can Exercise Help?

A century ago, when illness struck, patients were sent to bed, isolated and ‘let’ of blood.  Fortunately, sanatoriums and leeches have been done away with, but the concept of bed rest or inactivity is still one that has been debated until just recently.

Historically, there have been concerns that exercise could make cancer spread or cause the cancer to return. It has also been felt that exercise may cause treatment side-effects to worsen, leading to more fatigue, more pain.

Research in exercise and cancer has changed our attitudes towards activity and illness. In 2011, cancer experts joined with exercise experts to review the current research.  These experts clearly found that cancer survivors (including those undergoing treatment) can experience a multitude of benefits from exercise.

The National Cancer Institute reviewed over 45 studies. Virtually all of the studies showed that exercise decreased the risk of cancer-related death as well as death from other causes.  In other words, exercise made it less likely that cancer survivors would die from a recurrence of their cancer.  Exercise was found to improve blood sugar levels, decrease inflammation, and increase the number of immune system cells thought to attack cancer cells. Contrary to early concerns, patients reported feeling less fatigue, less nausea and pain, and a better quality of life. 

What can you do?

It’s actually quite simple.  Moderate activity–every day for about 20 minutes–can make a difference.  In a majority of the studies reviewed, walking was the main form of exercise.  However, household activities such as gardening, cleaning, raking, and so on, count toward your 20 minutes per day.  Gentle weights twice a week, as well as stretching throughout the week, are also recommended.

Check out your local YMCA.  Many local YMCAs have ‘LIVESTRONG at the YMCA’ programs available.  This is a research-based physical activity and well-being program designed to help adult cancer survivors reclaim their total health. Participants work with Y staff trained in supportive cancer care.  The Green Bay LIVESTRONG at the YMCA contact information is: Or contact Stacy Ryan, Member Experience Director at 920-436-1231

Of course, before beginning an exercise program talk to your provider.  There may be some restrictions you should be aware of given the site of cancer.  Just get moving!