Tips for Staying Fit While in Treatment

Exercise options can help you stay fit—even when you’re feeling the effects of cancer treatments. Cancer survivor, Dr. Lillian Nail, shares her top tips for exercising safely.

Cancer can be extremely exhausting. The treatments that help you fight the disease can be just as strenuous on the body. Surgery, drug therapy and radiation therapy can all cause short- and long-term physical side effects that make the thought of exercise overwhelming.

"People with cancer who have specific mobility or functional problems, like a leg amputation, are generally advised to follow the exercise programs and precautions developed for others with similar conditions,” says Lillian M. Nail, PhD, RN, Professor and Senior Scientist in Oncology Nursing at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Nursing.

Dr. Nail knows about these limitations from firsthand experience. She’s a four-time cancer survivor and has conducted research on physical activity in cancer survivors.

Even though exercise can seem impossible, it’s important to get moving as soon as you can during and after treatment. Studies have shown staying fit and healthy through exercise can help you:

  • Recover more quickly
  • Reduce cancer reoccurrence
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Decrease pain
  • Improve balance
  • Build bone density
  • Prevent muscle loss
  • Improve blood flow

There are also a number of psychological benefits connected to exercise that can make coping with cancer much easier. Experts recommend cancer survivors exercise just as much as other adults. However, how you exercise may need to be adjusted.

Exercise Advice Based on Your Ailment

"People with cancer have an increasing number of resources available to them,” says Dr. Nail. More, and more specialized exercise programs are being developed for people with cancer. There are also a number of easy exercises you can do on your own at home.

Dr. Nail always advises cancer survivors to acknowledge their current physical condition and work with it, rather than letting it keep you from being physically active.

  • People with bone metastases in the hips, spine and lower extremities are advised to limit weight-bearing exercises due to increased risk of injury. Dr. Nail suggests looking at other options, such as seated exercise or swimming programs developed for people with arthritis or other mobility issues.
  • If platelet counts are low, avoid situations where you might get scratched, bitten by insects, fall or have pressure put on your body due to the elevated risk of bleeding or bruising.
  • People with low white blood cell counts, or an otherwise compromised immune system, should avoid possible sources of infection, such as crowded places, areas where molds may grow or people with a contagious infection.
  • If your red blood cell count is low, you may need to refrain from working out until the count is back up.
  • Cancer patients with comorbidities, such as heart disease, should get additional exercise advice through cardiac or pulmonary rehabilitation programs.
  • Patients wearing a catheter need to avoid pools and lakes to prevent infection. You will also need to avoid straining the area where the catheter is located. 

Exercise Tips During and After Treatment

Some other general exercise tips from Dr. Nail include:

  • Exercise in a safe situation, where you can get help if you need it.
  • Start slowly, and stop if you have discomfort or pain. Practicing yoga has been found to be highly beneficial for cancer patients, and even something as simple as walking can increase circulation.
  • Base your workouts on your current fitness level. Check with your care team to see if you have any specific exercise limitations. It’s also a good idea to monitor your symptoms when you exercise and share any changes with your doctor.
  • Try to incorporate all four types of fitness: stretching, balance, aerobic exercise and strength training.
  • Don’t let a cancer diagnosis sideline you. Often, people completely cut out exercise after receiving a diagnosis, but health experts urge patients to keep working out if they are physically able to do so (as long as their doctors says it’s safe). 

Patients should always discuss exercise with their doctors before starting a workout plan or new type of activity. Other resources, such as physical therapists, occupational therapists and exercise physiologists, can also provide guidance in developing exercise plans that fit your specific needs and phase of treatment.


This material is furnished for informational purposes and is for your personal use only. It is not intended as a substitute for the expertise, judgment and specific advice of your doctor. Based on your condition and treatment plan, you may have different medical needs. Please talk to your doctor before making changes to your care plan.

Take it Easy.  Adapted Excerpt June 12, 2008, from