Workouts For Cancer Patients During Treatment

Workouts For Cancer Patients During Treatment

Guest post by Mike Linn

Medically reviewed by Dr. Doug Blayney on June 27, 2024


Finding the motivation to work out consistently can be a serious challenge. 

The couch is comfy, it’s unlikely any of us are training for the Olympics, and keeping a routine is often elusive as work, family, socializing, and other daily items drain our bandwidth.

What if you added a cancer diagnosis and treatment to that list?

It’s not easy - in fact, it can be a miserable chore to drag your ass to work out with high-toxicity chemicals coursing through your body. But there’s evidence that shows working out can help outcomes for cancer patients, both physically and mentally. 

Because treatment can be so difficult on our bodies and brains, this also creates a bit of a conundrum; how hard should we push ourselves, and what are appropriate workouts for a cancer patient?

Luckily (lol), I’ve had a lot of practice working out during cancer treatment, so I have some recommendations for exercise options during days that are challenging, and some higher-energy ones for better moments of motivation.

Dr. Blayney adds:  “Before you start a program, check with your oncologist as to the degree of exercise that’s appropriate for you.  Some of the newer treatments – immune therapies and others – may have subtle effects on your heart, lungs or other parts of your body that may be subtle or undetected.  This is unusual, so don’t let any of this dissuade you from exercise.  Overall, exercise of any level is very beneficial.”

See if any of them resonate with you!  ⬇️

Easy Workouts For Cancer Patients in Treatment

These are labeled ‘easy‘ because they might not be too strenuous while at our best. 

However, that’s not always the case, so we need to adapt. These workouts are for fatigue days, achy joint days, and lack of motivation days. They also do well as maintenance workouts or early rehab challenges.

Easy Workout 1: Mobility/Light Stretching

As cancer treatment has affected my hips via arthritis, my mobility and flexibility exercises are geared around hip flexibility, hamstring and glute strengthening, and keeping my posterior chain active. I often do a 10-15 minute session in the morning that looks like:

  • 30 leg swings on each side
  • 10 lunges on each leg
  • 15 calf raises (each side individually or both at once)
  • 1 set of push-ups with good form. This number will vary widely, but even if you have to modify the form, aim for an amount that is difficult, but not exhaustive to failure. 
  • 10 bodyweight squats
  • 1 minute plank

This workout is compact but will get your blood flowing and your muscles working. None of these exercises or amounts are prescriptive - feel free to change things up to suit your needs.

Easy Workout 2: Light Cardio

Much of the science behind the positive effects of working out on results for cancer patients is tied to a sustained, elevated heart rate for 150+ minutes a week.

In order to achieve this while on treatment, you might have to adjust your expectations versus your prior levels of fitness. Before my first cancer diagnosis in 2018, I had just completed running a marathon. In 2019 during the middle of treatment, I found that jogging 3 miles was the most my body could handle.  

Here are 5 different forms of light cardio I’ve found manageable during cancer treatment:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Exercise Bike
  • Swimming
  • Jumping Rope

These five exercises are all controllable, can be easy on your joints if you modulate your exertion, and don’t require a lot of gear or time to set up. The best workout is the one you’ll actually do, so finding the path of least resistance on tough days is critical.

Moderate Workouts for Cancer Patients

If you have the motivation and energy to work on your body, it might be a good idea. I’ve found that strength and fitness have helped provide physical and mental resilience during treatment, and there are studies to back that up as well.

Moderate Workout 1: Strength & Resistance Training

Lifting weights, using resistance bands, or bodyweight workouts are great for building muscle and bone density while burning calories and raising our heart rate.

Here are some generalized styles of strength or resistance training that can get you in great shape even while handling the toxicity of cancer treatment:

Our bodies, gym equipment, and aptitudes vary wildly, meaning these exercises are best approached to pragmatically fit your lifestyle with what is comfortable. Don’t feel compelled to buy new gear or jump into learning new techniques that put you at risk of injury. 

Moderate Workout 2: Casual Sports!

Similarly to the weight or resistance training section, I think it’s more valuable to approach this style of workout as a ‘choose your own adventure’ that fits with your surroundings, friends, and lifestyle.

I found these to be suitable medium workout days:

  • Hiking
  • Pickleball 
  • Racquetball
  • Yoga
  • Mountain Biking

Each of these activities can be done for 30 minutes or several hours, depending on your energy and ambition. They also provide great opportunities for getting outside, socializing, and distracting yourself from treatment stress and the likely existential crisis you’re having intermittently.

Difficult Workouts During Cancer Treatment

As with any of these intensity levels, your mileage and definitions will vary. I found that pushing myself during treatment was highly beneficial to my physical and mental health… until it wasn’t. I have collapsed during a basketball game while playing with autoimmune hepatitis, so I would advise that you do not go that far.

With that in mind, here are some harder workouts I’ve done during immunotherapy treatment:

  • Organized sports
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
  • Long Distance Running
  • Crossfit or gym classes

These can be as involved or as simple as you want - the important part is that if you’re willing to push yourself, you do so on the days you can. 

During my most recent cancer treatment, I created a circuit around my house that was:

  • ½ mile run
  • 10 pull-ups
  • 25 burpees
  • 10 goblet squats

I would try to do 3 sets of these every Thursday before my treatment on Friday. It worked to remind me that I still had energy and vitality, and it made me feel as though I was sweating out the last of the toxins from my prior treatment.

Ultimately, the benefits of working out during cancer treatment are significant enough that it’s worth your while to push yourself if possible (remembering that “push” is different for each of us!). Side effects, stress, and mental health issues are likely to play a role in limiting your bandwidth at some point in time, and it’s important to be realistic about what you can achieve and not feel bad about resting or skipping a workout you want to do. And make sure to check with your doctor before starting any new workout routine.

Read more:

Fitness consistency and the importance of movement for the cancer community with Olympic gymnast and fitness expert Dave Durante

What to say to a cancer survivor

Our team “gets it”

The Manta Cares team is composed of cancer survivors, caregivers and oncologists - so we truly understand the challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis because we’ve been there. We are here to walk with you as you go through your own cancer experience. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and check out our free resources like our Chemotherapy Checklist for Caregivers, Financial Checklist for Cancer Treatment and more. We also put out a bi-weekly podcast called the Patient from Hell to educate, empower and hopefully inspire you as you go through this crappy experience. You can listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube or anywhere you listen to podcasts. Dealing with cancer as a patient or caregiver can feel really lonely. Just know that you are not alone in this experience.

About the author

Mike Linn is a writer, athlete, business owner, and now a cancer patient advocate. He was first diagnosed with stage 3c metastatic melanoma at the age of 30 and had a stage 4 recurrence in 2023 at 35. In a better effort to understand the mental health side of being a cancer patient, he began posting content to social media and support groups and has yet to stop talking about his cancer experience both personally and professionally. Mike also loves candy and is determined to dispel the notion that sugar specifically feeds cancer - or he is at least hopeful that research will prove this.

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