Staying Fit During Chemo: A New Reason to Get Active With Cancer

Dealing with cancer can cause your mood to plummet. And when your body is already pumped with cancer drugs, you may want an alternative to popping a pill to get through the anxiety and depression—especially if you’re older.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Going through cancer treatment, like chemotherapy, can leave you feeling extremely fatigued and generally feeling crappy. Of course you just want to hunker down and rest as much as you can. But here’s the thing: Doctors still recommend exercise for cancer patients—and new research adds another reason why you should take that to heart, especially if you’re over age 60.

Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York found that exercise can seriously improve mood problems, including anxiety and depression, in older adults with cancer.
Because these patients are often discouraged from taking antidepressants and other anti-anxiety drugs due to potential side effects—particularly when they’re already undergoing chemo—alternative solutions for mood disorders are especially important for this age group.

And while it was already established that exercise can help anxiety and depression in younger people with cancer, this study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, is the first to look specifically at the effect of fitness on cancer patients 60 and up.

To conduct their research, the study authors assessed a home-based exercise program called Exercise for Cancer Patients (EXCAP), which focuses on low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and resistance training for people undergoing chemo. Low-intensity activities are those you can do and still talk and sing throughout; with moderate-intensity activity during you can speak but not sing—think yoga or leisurely walking versus riding a bike or brisk walking.

People involved in the EXCAP program received an instruction manual, three exercise bands (medium, heavy, and extra heavy), and a pedometer. Over time, they increased the length and intensity of their workouts. The results were clear: Those who participated in the program saw better mood, less anxiety, and improved social and emotional well-being.

How to Get Started With Exercise During Cancer Treatment

If you want to begin an exercise program while you’re undergoing cancer treatment, it’s crucial that you speak with your doctor first. They can help you understand what types of exercise are best for you, work with you to develop a fitness plan, and help you identify your limits to keep you safe.

One great way to get started is simply by walking. You can start slow, and gradually increase your pace and the length of your walks as the weeks go on. In the EXCAP program, for example, participants aimed to up their step count by 5% to 20% per week.

Resistance exercise is also important for people with cancer—you want to keep your muscles and bones as strong as possible throughout treatment, and this type of exercise also helps improve cancer-related fatigue, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). One simple way to start resistance training is to do five to 10 sit-to-stands from a chair a couple times a day (sort of like a mellow version of squats), according to ASCO.

ASCO also recommends cancer patients try using 1-pound soup cans or hand weights to do 10 repetitions of arm curls or shoulder presses a day. Start with one set of 10 reps—if you feel pretty good, try another set. When you can do three sets easily, increase the weight or resistance. Exercise bands, like those used in EXCAP, are a great option for building strength. Thera-band’s website has helpful images that show you how to do different exercises with resistance bands.

And it’s so important it bears repeating: Always check with your doctor before starting a new type of exercise if you have cancer, ASCO says. Pushing yourself too hard can lead to injury—and your goal is to stay as healthy as possible. Once your M.D. gives you the greenlight, don’t go from 0 to 60 in one day. We’re not talking about training for a marathon here—just start out with something small each day (maybe even just 10 minutes) and work your way up from there.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at