Exercise and Recovery: How Working Out Keeps You Cancer-Free

By February 13, 2019Lifestyle

It’s old news that lifestyle–especially diet and exercise–are the largest cancer deterrents. In fact, roughly half of all cancer diagnoses could be avoided by maintaining your overall health. But what about exercise’s role in beating cancer and keeping it in remission? Physical activity plays a unique part in the cancer patient’s life, and it’s essential to design a workout plan that will bring strength and healing.

We know that for any cancer patient, carrying extra weight after treatment decreases survival rates and increases the risk of recurrence. And the inverse is true, too: cancer survivors with lower BMIs live longer and have fewer recurrences than heavier patients. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is essential to cancer recovery, and exercise is a powerful means to that end. So when should patients begin working out, and what are the most effective exercises?

When a person receives a cancer diagnosis, their life often hits the brakes. A diagnosis commonly brings anxiety and depression, and the illness usually guarantees fatigue. Understandably, many aren’t at their most active at this time. But this is exactly when they should kick their fitness into gear. Kerry Courneya, professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Cancer, encourages patients to get active “as soon as possible.”

It might seem counterintuitive to fight fatigue with energy-expending exercise, but Courneya says this is exactly the best strategy. Working out can be a long-term answer to cancer’s exhaustion, and “it is important for cancer survivors to get back to exercising to help their recovery,” she explained.

All exercise plans should be discussed with your care team, but here is an outline of some often recommended workout routines.


Yoga is an attractive plan for many cancer patients because it weds physical strengthening with emotional restoration. The meditative component has been shown to combat the anxiety and depression that floods so many patients. For over two years, scientists studied yoga’s benefits in a group of cancer patients and found that those who practiced yoga reported an improved mood twice as frequently as the non-yogi participants.

But yoga doesn’t just improve your emotional wellbeing. Research indicates it can actually alleviate fatigue and pain, too. A University of Rochester survey found that out of 300 cancer patients following a yoga program, 37% of them experienced less daytime dysfunction–meaning they could go about their daily lives without napping or taking substantial breaks. The researchers recommended hatha yoga–which is notably gentle–and suggested that  patients find an instructor versed in working with cancer patients.

Cardio Fitness

The relationship between weight and cancer is pretty simple: the higher the weight, the higher the chance of developing cancer and experiencing a cancer recurrence. For patients with a high BMI, cardio fitness plans can be an efficient way to jumpstart a fit lifestyle. Because cardio fitness often expends a lot of calories, it’s  a powerful player at keeping your BMI low and cancer at bay.

A Duke University Medical Center study found that women who regularly participated in cardio fitness showed higher rates of both survival and remission than their stagnant counterparts. Survival rates for the healthy women were actually twice what they were in the less active women.

Duke University’s exercise scientist Lee Jones, PhD, explained, “Fitness level may be an important biomarker of survival among cancer patients, but the beautiful thing about fitness is that we can improve it with exercise training.” A standard cardio fitness plan should begin with 30 minutes each day, and individuals should achieve and maintain a BMI lower than 30.   

Strength Training

If you’re not sure which fitness program is the best use of your time, a recent study by University of Sydney could persuade you that strength training is the clear winner. The researchers studied 80,000 adults and concluded that strength training was especially effective at decreasing cancer-related deaths.

Participants who lifted weights only twice a week were 31% less likely to die from cancer. It’s worth noting, though, that a combination of cardio and weights improved participants’ odds the most significantly.

And the good news is that strength training is more accessible than you might think. You needn’t throw down a lot of dough on expensive machines or gear. The study found that simple resistance moves (like pushups, chinups, and planks) were just as effective as the exercises done with machines or gym equipment.

Between cancer’s drain on the body and the emotional strain of navigating a diagnosis, many patients feel uncompelled to workout, and that’s understandable. But that physical activity could be just the thing to restore your energy levels, beat back your disease, and keep you cancer-free. The science is clear, too, that exercise doesn’t have to be intense or time-consuming. Low-impact yoga, thirty minutes of daily cardio, or twice-weekly weights are enough to drastically bump survival rates in your favor.