What Is Oncological Exercise?

Studies over the years have demonstrated the benefits of physical exercise on the quality of life of cancer patients.
What Is Oncological Exercise?

Last update: 16 March, 2021

Oncological physical exercise is exercise that’s prescribed and controlled by a professional in order to reduce or prevent the side effects of cancer treatments. It’s an individualized training plan that, due to its global effects on the body, improves the health, quality of life, and survival of patients.

Thus, oncological physical exercise has 4 main characteristics:

  • Developed and supervised by a professional
  • Individualized to the needs of each patient
  • Adapted to each level
  • Based on scientific evidence

Accordingly, there’s ample evidence to suggest that regular physical exercise reduces the risk of various forms of cancer. Among others, it reduces the incidence of breast, colon, prostate and endometrial cancer. Specifically, regular moderate to high-intensity physical activity can reduce the risk of developing cancer by up to 24%.

The scientific study of oncological exercise

In the 1980s, and later in the 1990s, the possible beneficial effects of physical exercise in cancer treatment began to be considered. During these years the first studies on the effect of physical exercise in the reduction of oncological comorbidities and the bad effect of inactivity or sedentary lifestyle were carried out.

Later, at the beginning of the year 2000, researchers carried out studies on the effect of physical exercise and survival in patients with a specific type of cancer: breast cancer.

They also carried out research to determine the effect of oncological physical exercise on the biomarkers that affect the evolution of cancer, as well as to determine its effect on the tumor microenvironment in animal models and in cancer patients.

At the beginning of this century, specialists published the first guidelines on this type of physical exercise. They showed results that determined the benefit of physical exercise on the quality of life of patients with this disease.

A woman doing exercise.

What are the benefits of this type of physical exercise?

Thanks to all the studies that have been carried out over the years, we’ve certainly been able to confirm, as we mentioned, the physical benefit in the quality of life of patients suffering from cancer. Overall, these studies have explicitly shown that having a specific physical exercise plan can strengthen the immune system, as well as increasing survival and improving cardiac function.

Particularly, the other benefits associated with this practice are:

  • Significant improvement in quality of life
  • Recovery of a healthy weight
  • Decreased fatigue

Oncologic physical exercise and breast cancer

Focusing on breast cancer, which was one scientists most studied in this regard, they noted that regular exercise:

  • Improves functional capacity
  • Increases mineral density
  • Increases shoulder range of motion
  • Aids psychological support during treatment
  • Supports hemoglobin levels

Exercise may also mitigate the symptoms and adverse effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, reducing thrombocytopenia, diarrhea, pain, and hospital stays.

Women in a race.
One of the most studied cancers in relation to sport has been breast cancer.

Mechanism of action of exercise in cancer

Studies on the reasons behind why exercise could benefit these patients are scarce. However, most of them describe its effect through modifications in tumor growth, which would be achieved by:

  • Modifying vascularization and blood perfusion
  • Stimulating the immune system
  • Changing tumor metabolism
  • Decreasing internal substances: insulin growth factors or inflammatory markers


In short, it’s important to exercise when having cancer treatment, and to adapt the intensity to the needs of each stage. If one has an active life prior to the development of the disease, then it’ll be much easier.

This will help to maintain physical independence and improve both the cardiovascular capacity and the quality of life of patients undergoing such aggressive treatments. In conclusion, remember that a professional team that understands the subject must supervise this exercise.

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