Exercise: A Natural Stress Reliever for Cancer Patients

Exercise can minimize anxiety and stress in cancer patients and survivors. 

The health-related risks of stress have gotten a lot of attention in recent years. No one is immune to the problems created by chronic stress, but cancer patients are at a particularly high risk.

Anxiety is a common, and often untreated, side effect of cancer. The stress of a cancer diagnosis, fear of the unknown and uncertainty for the future are just a few things that can cause anxiety in patients, caregivers and loved ones. But it’s also one part of the process you can take steps to control.

Research suggests exercise could be a simple, natural solution for managing and relieving stress during and after treatments.

Managing Stress With Exercise

There are pharmaceuticals that can help you manage stress. But if you’re undergoing treatments, adding another prescription to the mix may not be the best option. The answer could be to get moving.

Researchers of a review published in the Archives of Internal Medicine turned their attention to anxiety in patients. The authors reviewed 40 studies published between 1995 and 2008. Altogether, the studies involved 2,914 sedentary patients with various chronic diseases, including cancer. After a thorough review, the researchers found regular exercise decreased symptoms of anxiety by about 20 percent or more.

“The analysis showed exercise training reduces anxiety among patients with cancer,” says Matthew Herring, one of the researchers who conducted the review. “There had been some observations there wasn’t a consistent improvement, but our analysis differed, because it included those exercising during treatment and after. We are showing exercise can not only improve anxiety in those going through treatment, but can also improve mood during survivorship.”

Exercise can also indirectly relieve stress by helping to improve other issues, such as fatigue and nausea. Another stress-relieving benefit of exercise is its potential to boost your immune system. Cancer.org also notes there are more than 20 studies that show people who are active have a lower chance of cancer reoccurrence compared to inactive survivors.

Stress-Reducing Exercises You Can Start Today

The good news is you don’t have to join a gym or take expensive fitness classes to realize the stress relief benefits of exercise. Herring points out that during the review, “The level and intensity did not present itself as a significant moderator. Any physical activity was better than none in reducing anxiety.”

That means if your doctor gives you the "okay" to exercise, you can participate in any sort of exercise you enjoy—or start with low-impact exercises if you’re still feeling fatigued. Get started with a few easy workouts you can do at home, including: 

  • Walking
  • Hiking
  • Stretching
  • Swimming
  • Stationary biking 

The research suggests exercise sessions of 30 minutes were more effective than shorter periods. However, any exercise is better than none at all, even if it’s just a few minutes every day.