Exercise for Cancer Prevention and Recovery

There is strong evidence that regular exercise promotes and enhances overall health. Exercise can also play a key role in cancer prevention and improving quality of life when living with cancer. Lauren Elson, MD, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physician (Physiatrist) at Newton-Wellesley Hospital answers your questions about exercise and health.

Can regular exercise improve health and reduce cancer risk?
Regular exercise improves strength and endurance and prevents bone loss (osteoporosis). It has also been proven to reduce the risk of hypertension, heart disease, type II diabetes, multiple chronic diseases and certain types of cancer. Numerous studies have shown prevention benefits for specific types of cancer in certain patients. For example, women over 30 that exercise regularly are less likely to develop breast cancer.

What type of exercise and how much should be done for cancer prevention?
Any patient with questions should get clearance from their primary care physician before starting a regular physical activity program. It is essential for most adults to take part in a regular exercise program that includes cardiorespiratory, resistance, flexibility and neuromotor exercise training beyond the activities of daily living to improve and maintain physical fitness and health. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that most adults engage in moderate-intensity cardiorespiratory exercise training for more than 30 minutes, five or more days a week for a total of 150 minutes per week. Two or three days a week, adults should also perform resistance exercises for each of the major muscle groups, and neuromotor exercise involving balance, agility and coordination. Completing a series of flexibility exercises for each of the major muscle and tendon groups two days a week is also recommended in order to maintain joint range of motion.

When deciding on an exercise program, people should make sure to modify the program according to their current physical activity, physical function, health status, exercise responses and goals. Adults who are unable to meet the exercise targets mentioned above can still benefit even if they cannot achieve the maximum goal. There are also health benefits in reducing a person’s total sedentary time. Adding frequent, short bouts of standing and physical activity between periods of sedentary activity is beneficial – even in physically active adults.

Are there other forms of exercise beyond the gym that are effective?
Any activity that increases cardiac output is effective. For someone who is bed ridden, this may involve standing and walking around the room every hour. For those with higher function, walking around the block, or during bad weather, in a shopping mall can be beneficial. Regular range of motion exercises to maintain use of all major joints is also important. Strengthening exercises with light weights or resistance bands can also improve overall strength and bone health.

How can exercise improve quality of life after a cancer diagnosis?
An exercise program can be a helpful way for cancer patients, both during and after treatment, to regain fitness and mobility and decrease anxiety. The most crucial part of an exercise program when cancer is involved is working with a health professional who can tailor a specific program for the patient. When dealing with chronic disease, many variables can come into play, so no one standard of exercise prescription can be applied. Many cancer exercise programs focus on increasing fitness for the whole body, as well as using exercise to combat depression and increase self-confidence. Several recent studies suggest that higher levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of the cancer coming back, and a longer survival after a cancer diagnosis. In studies of several different cancers, being overweight after completing treatment was associated with shorter survival times and higher risk of cancer recurrence. In other words, exercise for cancer patients can make you fitter, stronger and reduce risk of being overweight – like anyone else who exercises.

What type of exercise is recommended for cancer patients?
To the extent they are able, cancer patients and survivors should adhere to the recommended guidelines of at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. Exercise recommendations should be tailored to the individual cancer survivor to account for exercise tolerance and specific diagnosis. For example, cancer patients with weakened bones may be advised to avoid heavy weight-training in order to avoid fractures. Clinicians and fitness professionals should pay close attention to cancer survivors’ responses to physical activity, in order to safely progress exercise programs and avoid injuries. 

What resources does Newton-Wellesley offer to support exercise during cancer diagnosis and treatment?
Any patient with a current or past cancer diagnosis is eligible for a FREE screening program at the Vernon Cancer Center to evaluate current fitness level and goals. They may be given recommendations for a home exercise program, offered enrollment in specialized classes at Newton-Wellesley’s Shipley Fitness Center or encouraged to proceed with an individualized course of physical therapy. If there is any question regarding the diagnosis, musculoskeletal symptoms or restrictions for a particular diagnosis, the patient may be referred to the physiatrist. The Cancer Center also offers yoga classes. View Exercise Classes' Schedule

What is the role of a physiatrist specializing in cancer rehabilitation?
A physiatrist is a physician that has completed a four-year residency in the treatment of bone, muscle and nerve disorders that affect movement. A physiatrist that specializes in cancer rehabilitation has an additional understanding of how various cancers and treatments for cancer affect movement and quality of life. Besides diagnosing conditions that may require specialized rehabilitation programs, physiatrists can also determine if there are any restrictions or limitations on the type of movement that is appropriate for a patient. Physiatrists also use medications, various therapies and injections to improve quality of life for patients. They help to direct the individualized rehabilitation program for each patient, which may involve management of pre-existing conditions like low back pain that affects a cancer patient’s ability to exercise, or managing neurological deficits from tumors or chemotherapy.

What exercise classes do you offer?
The Cancer Center offers a variety of free exercise classes. For more information, contact the Center ar 617-219-1230 or View Exercise Classes' Schedule below.

Lauren Elson, MD
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physician,
Newton-Wellesley Hospital
Dr. Elson received her medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine and completed her residency at New York Presbyterian Hospital (Columbia/Cornell) in physical medicine and rehabilitation. She also completed a sports medicine fellowship at Stanford University. Dr. Elson is board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation and sports medicine.

For more information about the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, call CareFinder at 1-866-NWH-DOCS (694-3627) or visit www.nwh.org/cancer


Exercise Classes
The Cancer Center offers a variety of free exercise classes. For more information, contact the Center at 617-219-1230.

Fitness Screenings
Vernon Cancer Center
Screening appointments are available Tuesdays at 3:00 and 3:45 pm.

These informal screenings by a physical therapist provide an overall fitness assessment and recommendations for future exercise plans. The physical therapist can also refer patients for physical or occupational therapy for specific concerns.
Cancer Exercise Class
Department of Rehabilitation Services
Fridays at 11:00 am

This exercise class, led by a physical therapist, offers gentle aerobic exercise, strength training and stretching.
Private Cancer Exercise Class
Shipley Fitness Center
Private one-on-one classes.

These private classes, with an exercise physiologist, offer more vigorous aerobic exercise, strength training and stretching.
Yoga for Cancer Patients
Vernon Cancer Center
Group yoga Wednesdays at 11:00 am and Thursdays at 3:00 pm.
One-on-one class Wednesday at 10:00 am.

Gentle and appropriate for all fitness levels




Find a Doctor

Find primary care physicians and specialists.


Classes - Yoga, CPR, and more

Newton-Wellesley offers a variety of wellness center and childbirth education classes throughout the year. Learn CPR, practice yoga, prepare a sibling for a new child in the family, and more.
» Class info


2015 Top Docs List

More than 30 Newton-Wellesley affiliated physicians made Boston magazine's annual list recognizing some of the area's best doctors.
» Learn More  

Hospital Ranked #11

US News and World Report has ranked Newton-Wellesley Hospital 11th in Massachusetts.
» Learn More