From Megan Stout, MSN, APRN, advanced practice provider at OHC

February 17, 2023

Today, doctors are prescribing exercise as an important part of their cancer therapy. Research shows that regular exercise can greatly improve physical health, mental health, and quality of life for cancer patients.

After conducting a comprehensive literature review to determine how exercise, diet, and weight affect cancer patient outcomes, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) published guidelines last May. Specifically, cancer patients receiving treatment should participate in aerobic and resistance exercises to mitigate treatment-related side effects. According to ASCO, research shows that regular exercise can greatly impact physical and mental health during every treatment phase.

Before diving more deeply into the benefits of exercise during treatment, it is important to note the benefits of prehabilitation, or prehab, for newly diagnosed cancer patients. Prehab can include exercise, psychological, and nutrition-based interventions prior to beginning treatment to optimize outcomes. Think of prehab as introducing components of rehabilitation prior to therapy. ASCO recognizes prehab as an emerging field in cancer care, and while research on it is ongoing, current findings indicate that prehab can:

  • Reduce post-surgery hospital stays and complications and promote resiliency.
  • Help patients better tolerate treatment and recover more quickly.
  • Improve strength and endurance.
  • Give patients a sense of control and accomplishment.

Melanie Sorensen, PT, DPT, CLT, a physical therapist at Mercy Health-Fairfield Hospital, says, “Research shows that exercise before, during, and after treatment can increase patient energy level. Fatigue is a very common complaint among my cancer patients.”

Prior to starting a prehab program, doctors conduct a physical and/or psychological assessment of the patient to obtain a baseline and then recommend interventions. Prehab interventions may also include nicotine cessation and recommendations for less alcohol consumption to improve patient lung function and promote healing.

The benefits of prehab can be realized even with only one week of intervention. “The patient education we provide to patients during this time offers them a sense of comfort as we prepare them for what to expect during treatment,” said Melanie, who provides one-on-one patient prehab and rehabilitation. “Prehab gives patients an opportunity to build a relationship with their physical therapist.”

Exercise during cancer therapy is both safe and beneficial. Interestingly, too much rest during treatment can be detrimental to patients, resulting in muscle weakness and decreased body function. The benefits of exercise during treatment include:

  • A reduction in treatment side effects including pain, nausea, fatigue, lymphedema (tissue swelling), and chemotherapy-related brain fog and neuropathy of the hands and feet.
  • Preservation of heart and lung fitness, physical functioning, and strength.
  • Improved treatment response.
  • Improved balance reducing the risk of falls and broken bones.
  • Possible reduction in anxiety and depression and better sleep quality.
  • Lower risk of developing new cancers, heart disease, and diabetes.
  • Higher energy level.

My colleagues and I offer these additional tips for patients embarking on an exercise program during treatment:

  • Discuss your intent to begin an exercise program with your healthcare provider.
  • There will be days when you need to rest and may not feel up to physical activity. Remember that some exercise is better than no movement at all. During these times, consider lighter exercise like yoga or a short walk.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • After treatment, recognize that it will take time to return to your pre-diagnosis fitness level.

It is important for patients to discuss measures, including exercise, to help sustain strength and minimize treatment side effects with their healthcare provider. For more information on the patient-centered services provided by OHC’s multi-disciplinary team of cancer experts or to request a second opinion, call 1-888-649-4800 or visit

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