Exercise Helps Throughout the Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Journey

by Sheila M. Eldred Health Writer

Most cancer patients can reap benefits from exercise, and non-small cell lung cancer patients are no exception. Indeed, research has shown that lung cancer patients enjoy specific benefits from working out, including relief from fatigue, improved survival rates and quality of life, decreased side effects from cancer treatments and surgery, and less anxiety.

Mature Female Runner Pausing For Breath During Exercise In Woods

Lung Cancer Can Pose Exercise Challenges

Because the lungs are so integral to exercise, lung cancer patients may have a unique set of challenges when beginning or re-starting to exercise. Lung cancer patients tend to have lower fitness levels than average adults, but exercise can change that. Be sure to discuss your workout plans with your care team, and check out these tips to get you on track.

Stretching before working out after chemo.

You Can Exercise at Any Point in Lung Cancer Treatment

Exercise at any point of your lung cancer journey can be beneficial, but research shows that exercise both before and after lung surgery can help improve outcomes. Exercise helps advanced lung cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, too. (Yes, this means there is really no bad time to exercise!)

working out in bursts.

Lung Cancer Means Simpler Exercise Goals

If you worked out a lot pre-cancer, start fresh; don’t hold yourself to old expectations. Instead, let your body dictate what it can do. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute recommends starting with easy aerobic sessions as short as 5 to 10 minutes. Consider walking, cycling, or swimming. If you can only manage a few minutes at a time at the beginning, consider doing those short bursts several times a day.

Walking in field.

Aerobic Exercise, Built Up Slowly, Improves Lung Capacity

It may seem contradictory, but aerobic exercise helps most lung cancer patients, even if you have trouble breathing when you’re just resting. For aerobic activity that relies on gulping air, the key is to start slowly and build. If you weren’t active prior to your cancer treatment, consider light walking. If you have athletic experience, modify your activity or sport. Don’t overdo it, but do build up as your body allows.

Using dumbells.

Strength Training Helps Rebuild Lost Muscle Mass

Strength training is helpful in regaining any muscle strength that may have been lost due to lung cancer symptoms or treatment. As with aerobic training, make sure to set short-term, achievable goals for strength training. Bonus: strength training can help your balance and posture as well.

woman touching stomach while doing breathing exercise

Breathing Techniques Improve Respiration and Relaxation

Breathing is fundamental to exercise, and learning new breathing techniques can help alleviate side effects of lung cancer treatment. For example, lung cancer patients often compensate for weak diaphragm muscles by using other muscles when breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing can help strengthen the diaphragm and abdominal muscles to give the chest muscles a chance to rest. And relaxation breathing methods can help you manage stress and anxiety.

woman stretching outdoors
Matthew LeJune

Stretching Helps Improve Breathing and Range of Motion

Gentle stretching is doubly important for lung cancer patients. First, it can help boost lung capacity and loosen the chest muscles to allow for deep breathing. Second, radiation can result in tight muscles, and stretching can restore the range of motion you enjoyed before treatment.

Physiotherapist examining and correcting patient's posture

Good Posture Increases Lung Capacity

Another way to maximize your breathing: keep your shoulders and chin back. It’ll encourage deep breathing, and it’s especially important if you sit a lot, according to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Yoga can also help improve posture and foster improved breathing.

working with trainer.

Lung Cancer Side Effects Require Caution

Of course, lung cancer patients also need to exercise caution. If you have severe anemia, a compromised immune system, severe fatigue or balance issues, check in with a physical therapist, exercise physiologist or personal trainer first, the American Lung Association advises. In fact, it’s best for any lung cancer patient to start out with a professional in a safe environment.

Yoga class

Check Out Fitness Classes Designed for Cancer Patients

The American College of Sports Medicine certifies cancer exercise trainers. Look for cancer-specific classes led by these trainers at community centers, the YMCA, YWCA, or your local gym.

Sheila M. Eldred
Meet Our Writer
Sheila M. Eldred

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a graduate of Columbia’s School of Journalism and a former newspaper reporter. As a freelance health journalist, she writes about everything from life-threatening diseases to elite athletes. Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, Nature, FiveThirtyEight, Pacific Standard, STAT News, and other publications. In her spare time, she and her family love running, cross-country skiing, and mountain biking in Minneapolis.