Exercise is Medicine for Cancer Survivors. How can You Stay Active during a Pandemic?

July 10, 2020 Jennefer Boyer, MPH, Executive Director of Team Survivor Northwest

There may not be much that you feel you can control along the cancer journey, but there is one thing you can do to see results with only positive side effects: exercise. The research published over the last decade makes it clear that exercise can improve fatigue, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, happiness, and quality of life in cancer survivors. Furthermore, studies show that moderate physical activity has been associated with a reduced risk of cancer recurrence and survivors living longer lives. Exercise is a strong medicine in the fight against cancer.

Recently, our world changed. With gyms closed and social distancing the new norm, many people are stuck inside. But staying at home should not mean giving up and becoming sedentary. Sometimes it just means that you must get creative and try something new.

Why exercise?

“Being physically active is one of the most important steps people of all ages and abilities can take for cancer prevention, treatment, and control…. Strong evidence exists to support an association between physical activity and cancer risk and survival,” states a 2019 study published in the Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). With some studies showing as high as a 50-60% decrease in death rates from breast & colorectal cancer survivors who exercise after diagnosis, the American Cancer Society is calling on oncologists to prescribe exercise to their patients. More research is being done to determine how much exercise is needed for each type of cancer, but early studies show that even 30 minutes, 3 days per week, can make a difference. If you are going through treatment and 30 minutes is more than you can handle, the same benefits come from breaking it up. A 10-15 minute walk each day will bring health benefits. Start small and do a little more each day.

In another ACSM publication by our own Dr. David Zucker of Swedish Cancer Institute, we learn that, “Enough evidence was available to conclude that specific doses of aerobic, combined aerobic plus resistance training, and/or resistance training could improve common cancer-related health outcomes, including anxiety, depressive symptoms, fatigue, physical functioning, and health-related quality of life.” Finding a way to stay active, in the doses your body is currently able to do, is worth the many rewards.

How to exercise from home?

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit our community, industries had to adjust fast, including the fitness industry. There has been a burst of resources and classes that have recently been made available online. While there are options that come with a fee, cancer is expensive enough, so let’s look closer at some options that are free:

  • Team Survivor Northwest (www.teamsurvivornw.org) offers a variety of free online fitness classes and programs to women who have had a cancer diagnosis. Classes include Active Women / Healthy Women fitness, Yoga, Strength Training, Zumba & Pilates. Join the virtual duathlon team, no matter your ability, and receive online group training and personal coaching, all from home. Friendship is a natural part of these classes because we are conquering challenges together.
  • Cancer Lifeline (www.cancerlifeline.org) is currently offering online options for cancer patients and their families and friends to build strength through support groups, classes in nutrition, exercise, personal expression, stress reduction, and personalized emotional support.
  • Turn on some music and dance like no one is watching. Want to do dance fitness with a group? Try virtual Dance Church (go.dancechurch.com).
  • See if your community center is offering classes online. Some have a “pay-what-you-can” model to be accessible for all. (UHeights is one example: https://www.uheightscenter.org/upcoming-events.)
  • Work out at home with a You Tube video (search for key words like “cancer exercise video” or “lymphedema work out” depending on your personal needs).
  • Do laps up and down your stairs each morning before getting in the shower. Add one flight each day.
  • Go for a walk or a hike, alone or with someone in your household.
  • Go for a bike ride and enjoy the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Be creative! Come up with your own exercise plan.

Remember to follow the governor’s guidelines for your risk group, wear a mask if out in public and stay safe. This is the perfect time to try something that you have never done before. Find an activity that interests you because you are much more likely to stick with it if it is fun. A challenge can be a good thing, especially the moment you overcome it. Celebrate your progress along the way.

In a time when you are being told all the things you cannot do, don’t let your mind focus on limits - instead focus on new opportunities. What will you do with this opportunity?



  • Patel, AV, et al. “American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable Report on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Cancer Prevention and Control.” Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, 2391-2402.
  • Holmes, MD et al. “Nurses Health Study: Exercise and Survival After Breast Cancer Diagnosis.”  JAMA, 2005.
  • Meyerhardt, JA et al. “Exercise and Survival After Colorectal Cancer.” J Clin Oncol, 2006.
  • Campbell, KL, Winters-Stone, KM, et al. “Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors: Consensus Statement from International Multidisciplinary Roundtable.” Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, 1-16.
  • Katheryn H Schmitz, PhD, MPH; et al. “Exercise Is Medicine in Oncology: Engaging Clinicians to Help Patients Move Through Cancer.” Ca Cancer J Clin, 2019; 0:1–17.
  • Irwin ML, Mayne ST. “Impact of nutrition and exercise on cancer survival.” Cancer J. 2008; 14: 435-441.




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