Effective Exercise Strategies to Manage the Side-Effects of Cancer Treatment

Cancer is broadly speaking, a malignant (i.e. bad) group of cells that form a tumour. Tumours can be either benign (i.e. not harmful) or malignant (i.e. harmful).

Figure 1: Infographic describing how cancer cells develop and spread. Retrieved from the Cancer Council (2021).

An unfortunate reality of cancer is that one in two Australians are expected to be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2019), with cancerous cells arising from almost any type of tissue cell.

When treating cancer, it will typically require a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and/or immunotherapy. All forms of treatment have their respected side effects including both short and long-term effects. An important consideration for those with cancer is recognising what stage of treatment they are in (pre, during, post), and what have they have had done (surgery, chemotherapy etc.).

Exercise will often feel like the last thing on someone’s mind during cancer recovery, but research shows it could make all the difference (Hayes et al., 2019; Stout et al., 2017). Figure 2 and Table 1 below provide a nice little summary on the benefits exercise can have.


Figure 2: Running from cancer at all stages. Retrieved from Hojman et al. (2018).

 A big factor to remember when diagnosed with cancer is that the fitter you are prior to treatment, the better you are going to be long-term because you can withstand larger doses of treatment and don’t have to regress dosage levels (Hojman et al., 2018).

The main aim of exercise is to, but is not limited to:

  • Reduce your fatigue levels
  • Reduce your nausea
  • Improve your functional capacity
  • Improve your aerobic capacity
  • Improve your energy levels
  • Improve your strength (including your red blood cells and white blood cells)
  • Improve your quality of life and mood state
  • Improve your body image
  • Increase your social interaction
  • Improve your sleep
  • Improve your activities of daily living
  • Reduce the risk of osteoarthritis

Overall, there is no set prescription and total weekly dosage that would be considered evidence-based for all cancer patients (Hayes et al., 2019). Exercise prescription should ultimately be targeted to the individual, encourage behaviour change and support the individual to achieve their goals.

Generally speaking, the following exercise programming is recommended:

Aerobic exercise

Minimum of 4-6 on the RPE, 20-45 minutes, 3-5 days a week.

Resistance exercise (major muscle groups, focus on affected areas)

Minimum of 4-6 on the RPE, 1-3 x 10-15, 2-3 days a week

Static stretching (major muscle groups)

2-4 stretches per muscle group, 20-30 second hold, 5-7 days a week

Figure 3: Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale for Exercise.

Other factors to consider:

  • Exercise may influence your immune function. In turn, try to avoid excess exercise as it can exacerbate the reduction in your immune function. Check-in on your body and find the right dose for you.
  • The side-effects of your treatment can be strong. Subsequently, you need to review your signs and symptoms every session to see if exercise would be appropriate for you that day.

For most, moderate to high intensity resistance and aerobic exercise, with the inclusion of stretching, will be appropriate. To ensure the greatest benefit from exercise, your exercises should be targeted towards you that also encourage behaviour change advice and support (Hayes et al., 2019).

If you would like a tailored exercise program that will support you throughout your journey, contact Adaptive to book a consultation with one of our Exercise Physiologists.

Written By Kyle Beavis (Exercise Physiologist)



Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019). Cancer in Australia 2019. Cancer series no.119. Cat. no. CAN 123. Canberra: AIHW

Cancer Council (2021). What is Cancer?. Retrieved 7th February 2021, from https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/what-is-cancer

Hayes, S.C., Newton, R.U., Spence, R.R., and Galvao, D.A. (2019). The Exercise and Sports Science Australia position statement: Exercise medicine in cancer management. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 22(11), 1175-1199.

Hojman, P., Gehl, J., Christensen, J.F., and Pedersen, B.K. (2018). Molecular mechanisms linking exercise prevention and treatment. Cell Metabolism, 27(1), 10-21.

Stout, N.L., Baima, J., Swisher, A.K., Winters-Stone, K.M., and Welsh, J. (2017). A systematic review of exercise systematic reviews in the cancer literature (2005-2017). Contemporary Issues in Cancer Rehabilitation, 9(9), 347-384.


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