Increase Cancer Survivorship with Exercise

“When will we treat physical activity as a legitimate medical therapy… even though it does not come in a pill?”

-Church T, Blair SN.  Br J Sports Med 2008 Oct 16

We all know we are supposed to exercise.  It makes us feel good by getting the endorphins running.  If we falter, we feel sluggish or moody; suffer from poor sleep, digestion or anxiety.

For those diagnosed with cancer, exercise has some solid research behind it to increase survivorship substantially!  It may take a few weeks to build up to these numbers. But it’s well worth it. They represent evidence-based guidelines for keeping cancer at bay!

Exercise Guidelines for most Cancer Patients and Survivors1

  • Do continuous or intermittent “cardio” exercise 20-60 minutes 3-5x/wk at 55-90% Max HR (220-age) [so if you are 60yo, Max HR is 55-90% of 220-60=160, or 88-144 bpm. Just check your pulse!]


  • Do resistance exercise 6-12 reps (50-85% of 1RM [RM=repetition maximum, ie      what you can only lift once]) and 1-4 sets of each exercise for major muscle groups 1-3 x/wk


  • Do flexibility exercises for major muscle groups 2-4 sets each exercise 2-3 x/wk

So, the next question is, is it really worth it?  Let’s see what the evidence shows. How much does exercise REALLY help survivorship?

BREAST CANCER: 50-60% increase in survivorship in breast cancer seen with regular physical fitness (>9 hrs/week exercise vs < 3 hrs/week) 2

COLON CANCER: 51% decreased risk of dying from colon cancer for 18-26.9 hours/week versus <3 hours/week exercise.  55% decreased risk for 27+ hours/wk3

CHEMICAL BENEFITS: circulating level of insulin, insulin-related pathways, inflammation, and, possibly, immunity4

Note 1: survivorship is not the same as prevention.  We’ll talk about prevention later.

Note 2: Make sure you talk to your oncologist about exercise before diving in.  Though exercise is safe for most patients, it does stress the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems.

Josh Eha, L.Ac, C.SMA is certified in “Acupuncture for the Cancer Patient” by the Integrative Oncology department of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.  For the last decade, he has treated cancer patients at Scripps Center of Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, California and in private practice.

  1. Newton R, Galvão D.  Exercise in Prevention and Management of Cancer. Current Treatment Opinion in Oncology (2008) 9:135-146.
  2. Holmeset al., Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. JAMA 2005, 293 (20):2479-2486
  3. Meyerhardt,et al.JCO, 2006 Aug 1; 24(22): 3517-8.

4 . J Natl Cancer Inst. 2012 Jun 6;104(11):815-40. Epub 2012 May 8.