Exercising with Lung Cancer

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Exercising can seem daunting for many cancer patients, especially those with lung cancer, who may experience difficulty breathing when resting. But studies have shown that exercise can significantly relieve treatment-related fatigue, while decreasing the risk of many serious illnesses, including recurring or secondary cancers. Patients with shortness of breath due to their cancer can — and should — work exercise into their daily routines to help improve strength, endurance, and quality of life.

All patients, regardless of cancer type and activity level, should consult with their care team before undertaking any exercise program. If you were not active prior to beginning treatment, you should start slowly with physical therapy or light walking to improve flexibility and build cardiovascular strength. If you were active previously, you may want to participate in modified versions of the activities you enjoyed before your diagnosis. Your care team and the exercise physiologist in Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Adult Survivorship Program, a member of the LIVESTRONG Survivorship Center of Excellence Network, can help you modify these exercises based on your health and treatment schedule so you can fight fatigue, stay active, and improve your strength and fitness.

Despite limited lung capacity, exercise can help patients with non-small cell lung cancer improve their quality of life, while lowering fatigue and depression and improving muscle strength. Some tips for safely exercising with lung cancer include:

  • Listen to your body. Don't get frustrated if your body cannot handle the level of exercise you may be used to. Start "low and slow" with several 5-10 minute sessions of light walking, or easy cycling, swimming, or other cardio, several times a day, and build from there with small milestones.
  • Use a pedometer. This is a great tool to get family and friends involved in your exercise and to keep you motivated. Measure your steps for a week to set a baseline, and slowly set goals from there. You may be surprised at how much you move when you're not thinking about "exercise."
  • Improve your posture. Sitting down all day at a desk or driving can take a toll on posture, which is directly correlated to breathing and lung capacity. Work on keeping your shoulders and chin back and opening your body to encourage deep breathing. Yoga and Qigong, both available at the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies, can help you develop better posture and increased lung capacity, which will make other exercise much easier.
  • Don't forget to strength train. Cancer treatments can often cause weight gain and muscle and bone density loss, which strength training can combat. Start small and consult your doctor before beginning a strength training plan.
  • Be sure to warm up, stretch, and cool down with each exercise session.

Patients with lung cancer and other cancers and blood disorders may schedule an exercise consultation with our exercise physiologist to measure their fitness level and create a comprehensive plan to meet their goals. Adult female patients and survivors of any experience level may also participate in the Institute's free, bi-weekly fitness classes, which consist of strength training, stretching, and core muscle work.