Exercise During Cancer Treatment

For some, exercise and cancer treatment may sound like chalk and cheese. But the truth is quite the opposite. Exercise is, in fact, one of the best things someone who has been diagnosed with cancer can do to help manage their treatment.

In a nutshell, regular exercise helps people going through cancer treatment to experience less intense, and often fewer, side effects from their treatment. Though there is no magic-bullet solution to the devastating impacts of cancer, it is strongly encouraged by the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) and Exercise & Sport Science Australia (ESSA) due to the multitude of great benefits it boasts.

Exercise can not only help boost a patient’s treatment tolerance, but it can also reduce cancer-related symptoms such as physical decline and fatigue, as well as alleviate mental distress. When appropriately prescribed and carefully monitored, exercise during cancer treatment can greatly improve a patient’s quality of life.

Now is a great time to learn more about the benefits of exercise during cancer treatment because June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. As the second deadliest form of cancer in Australia, bowel cancer claims the lives of 103 Australians every week. The great news is, when it’s detected early, bowel cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer, and exercise is an important piece of that treatment journey.

How exercise can help relieve common side effects of cancer treatment

Cancer treatment is never going to be a walk in the park. But exercise can play a big role in minimising the side effects and improving a patient’s quality of life. Here are just a handful of ways exercise during cancer treatment can do this.


  • Fatigue: regular exercise combats fatigue by increasing a patient’s energy levels as it stimulates the cardiovascular system. This promotes better blood flow and oxygen delivery to the muscles and organs. At the same time, it can also strengthen muscles, which reduces the effort it takes to perform daily tasks.
  • Anaemia: regular exercise stimulates the production of red blood cells in the bone marrow. This can help counteract the effects of anaemia by increasing the number of red blood cells available to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues.
  • Bone strength: Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking or weightlifting, places stress on the bones, which stimulates bone growth and increases bone density.
  • Muscle strength: treatments like chemotherapy can cause muscle weakness. Regular exercise, especially targeted strength-building exercises, help preserve and build muscle mass. It stimulates the growth of muscle fibres, promoting strength and effective muscle function.


Starting on your exercise journey

It’s important to speak with your doctor before starting any exercise program during or after cancer treatment. They might give you the green light to start exercising on your own, or they may direct you to a qualified cancer exercise specialist who can tailor a program to suit your unique needs, such as an exercise physiologist.

Building your exercise plan

When it comes to exercising during cancer treatment, you’ll need to start slow. Always listen to your body and do only what you feel you can manage. But remember, a small amount of exercise is better than none at all.

Your exercise plan, whether you make it yourself or if it’s designed by a professional, will depend on the type of cancer you have, the treatments you’re undergoing and their side effects. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but generally, an exercise plan for someone with cancer will include:


  • Aerobic exercise: which causes the heart rate to rise, and consequently maintains cardiovascular health. Includes swimming, jogging, cycling and more.
  • Resistance training:  also known as strength training, improves the strength and endurance of muscles and bones. Includes weight-lifting, pilates and more.
  • Pelvic floor exercises: especially important for patients of bowel and/or colorectal cancers, pelvic floor exercises can help control urination and bowel movements, as well as core stability.
  • Balance exercises: loss of balance is a common side effect of cancer treatment. Balance exercises can help regain the stability and mobility needed for safe everyday activity.


Exercising with a stoma

A stoma is a surgical opening in the abdomen that provides an alternate pathway for waste elimination when normal bodily functions are impaired. Sometimes patients, particularly bowel cancer patients, need a stoma as part of their treatment. 

After osmotic surgery, it’s best to wait until your doctor gives you the go-ahead before you start exercising. It can take time for your abdominal muscles to recover after the procedure, but this is all the more reason why exercise is so important for patients with a stoma.

In the long run, your stoma shouldn’t prevent you from doing the exercise you love. Just remember to start slowly, and focus on improving your abdominal and core strength first. Walking, swimming and modified pilates are all great choices for exercise during cancer treatment with a stoma.

Tips for exercising with a stoma

For many patients wanting to exercise during cancer treatment, it can seem daunting to try and add a stoma into the mix. But with a few adjustments, it’s a piece of cake.

  • Wear supportive garments, like an abdominal support belt, for added comfort and security during physical activity.
  • Use a stoma cap or mini stoma pouch for additional protection and peace of mind when swimming.
  • Be mindful of parastomal hernia risk and incorporate core exercises.

If you or someone you know needs help with exercise during or after cancer treatment, Body Dynamics Illawarra is happy to help. Our exercise physiologists are trained in the treatment of cancer patients and know how to achieve the right results.

Contact us today for more information on how we can work together!