Exercising with Lung Cancer

Doctors used to believe that anyone dealing with a chronic illness, such as lung cancer, should rest and reduce their activity as much as possible. In cases where movement causes pain, shortness of breath, or rapid heart rate, that advice still might be relevant. However, newer research has shown that exercise is both safe and beneficial for people undergoing treatment for cancer. People who are undergoing treatment for lung cancer are encouraged to get regular physical exercise as much as individually possible.1

Physical Activity Benefits During Lung Cancer Treatment

Fatigue is a common symptom experienced by people with lung cancer, and fatigue can be caused by the cancer itself or from the treatments used to fight it. Fatigue can have an impact on someone’s ability to exercise. Research data shows that people with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) engage in less physical activity compared to similar aged healthy individuals. Patients who have undergone lung resection (surgery) show decreased ability to walk long distances, and patients receiving chemotherapy also seem to be more debilitated. Ironically, one of the most effective methods of reducing the severity of fatigue is exercise. Researchers have demonstrated that lung cancer patients who engage in regular exercise experience less severe cancer-related fatigue, improved well-being, improved functional status, and improved overall quality of life. Some studies have shown that those who exercise regularly have 40-50% less fatigue.2,3

In addition to improving the impact of fatigue, exercise has demonstrated multiple benefits to cancer patients, including:

  • Improving lung function both pre- and post-surgery in lung cancer patients, as well as in those patients with advanced, inoperable lung cancer 3
  • Increasing muscle strength, joint flexibility, and general conditioning 2
  • Improving balance and reducing the risk of falls 1
  • Keeping muscles from wasting due to inactivity 1
  • Improving self-esteem 1
  • Lessening anxiety and depression 1
  • Improving quality of life 1,2

Exercise Tips During Treatment for Lung Cancer

Before beginning a new exercise routine, patients should talk to their doctor or a physical therapist who specializes in working with cancer patients. They can provide personalized guidance and may design an individualized exercise program. New exercise programs should be started slowly and progress incrementally, tailored to the unique needs and restrictions of the individual. The goal of an exercise program should be to keep the person as fit and active as possible, and general recommendations are to get 30 minutes of activity at least five days a week.1,3

Most exercise programs have three components:

  • Aerobic workout to get the heart pumping
  • Strength training to maintain and build muscles
  • Stretching to keep the body limber 3

People who were very active prior to their lung cancer diagnosis may find they need to scale back their intensity during treatment. People who have been sedentary prior to their lung cancer diagnosis may find they need to start very slowly, perhaps with a 10-minute walk around the neighborhood. Each individual will need to tailor their physical activity based on their health and the limitations of their treatment, but all patients can benefit from regular physical exercise.1,3