Cancer & Running: The Benefits of Getting & Staying Active

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Cancer & Exercise Cancer & Running: The Benefits of Getting & Staying Active

Exercise may not be the first thing that comes to mind if you are struggling with a chronic illness such as cancer. In fact, in the past, many doctors recommended that patients dealing with illness limit their physical activity and incorporate as much rest as possible. This mindset has changed and more recent research has shown that increasing physical activity and incorporating regular daily exercise when being treated for cancer may help control pain, improve strength and endurance, and overall provide a better quality of life. Individuals who were previously regularly active will have an easier time keeping active during treatment than those who lived a sedentary lifestyle before diagnosis.

Benefits of Exercise

Exercise provides many benefits whether you have an illness or not. Improvements in strength, endurance, and balance, lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, and better weight control are just a few of the positive effects of physical activity. For cancer patients who are being treated with chemotherapy, the side effects end up being the struggle on a daily basis. Some of the worst side effects are fatigue, nausea, weight changes, and depression, all of which can be somewhat managed with exercise.


The loss of energy with a cancer diagnosis can stem from several different causes. Anemia, depression and treatment side effects can all create extreme fatigue that limits the ability to carry out even the simplest daily activities. It may seem counterintuitive, but studies have shown that patients who incorporate regular physical activity are less tired overall, have better sleep patterns, and less depression than those who refrain from exercise. Results were the same whether for patients who were already active before diagnosis or those who were sedentary. Resting too much on a daily basis eventually leads to a loss of strength and endurance, decreased joint mobility, and weight gain. These effects will cause one to feel heavier and tired, worsening the fatigue over time.


Nausea and vomiting are the most uncomfortable side effects of cancer treatment, and probably is the main reason why most people who are suffering from these symptoms limit moving around. Besides taking anti-nausea medications, exercise has been shown to help significantly relieve these symptoms. It is unclear exactly how it helps, but it may be due to an increase in the body’s circulation and metabolism. Of course, if nausea and vomiting are active, it is not advisable to start exercising right away.

Running with Cancer

For an avid runner to be told they have to stop running, it may be the worst news after diagnosis. With all of the positive benefits of exercise for cancer patients, running is sure to bring even more beneficial effects for those who have used running as their main source of activity for years. Since fatigue, nausea, and infections may all get in the way at times of your regular running program, you may have to learn to be flexible and allow changes to your schedule. Depending on certain types of chemotherapy treatments, the worst symptoms may occur after the first two or three days of treatment and subside for several days until you are due for treatment again. These are the days to take advantage and get some running done. Although it may be hard during those days of worsening symptoms, it is beneficial to get in a short walk, yoga, or other light activity to maintain your fitness and help control the symptoms.

Tips for Running During Cancer Treatment

  • Get approval from your doctor before continuing your running program.
  • Since white blood cell (infection-fighters) count is decreased with chemotherapy, opt for road running over the gym to avoid the risk of infections.
  • Wear a heart rate monitor to assess your workload during running, since fatigue may increase the effort of your heart. Adjust your pace and duration if needed.
  • Scale back running if anemic, since oxygen-carrying capacity to muscles is decreased.
  • Platelet count can be decreased as well, which will cause a higher risk of bruising and bleeding. Therefore be extra cautious when running to avoid falls or contact with another person or an object.
  • If nausea and vomiting are significantly active and you are unable to keep down a meal, it is advisable to skip running altogether since the body will be low on fuel.
  • Run with a friend when possible in order to have another person monitor your symptoms as well, and be available in case of an emergency.

If you have been a runner for a long time, incorporating your regular routine is most definitely possible as long as you follow guidelines. If you have to reduce the amount of your regular running for a few days, trade it for a lower impact activity in order to maintain your fitness as much as possible. It is important to make sure to include a proper warm-up and cool-down, as well as stretching to limit any risk of unnecessary muscle pain or stiffness. Training for a marathon may not be the most comfortable idea during cancer treatment, but it is not impossible. Just make sure to always get advice from your doctor, monitor your vital signs and other symptoms, and adjust your training plan when needed.


  1. Justin C. Brown, Kerri Winters-Stone, Augustine Lee, and Kathryn H. Schmitz, Cancer, Physical Activity, and Exercise, Journal
  2. Prue Cormie, Eva M Zopf, Xiaochen Zhang, and Kathryn H Schmitz, The Impact of Exercise on Cancer Mortality, Recurrence, and Treatment-Related Adverse Effects, Journal