Can I Convince You to Exercise During Chemo?

Can I Convince You to Exercise During Chemo?

Marian Barnick

Marian Barnick

Marian Barnick is a Registered Kinesiologist and Cancer Movement Therapist teaching cancer patients how to move better and feel better.

Can I Convince You to Exercise
During Chemo?

This sounds like a tall order.  And with little wonder.  We all know that it takes conviction and incredible strength for chemo patients to fight through treatment.

And treatment comes with side effects.  Some are obvious like hair loss and muscle loss.  The not so obvious are even more devastating – fatigue, nausea, pain.  This is why treatment is a battle.

And now, in the midst of this battle, I’m saying to you let’s get out there and exercise.  “Ya right” you say back to me and think to yourself I never exercised before my diagnosis so I’m certainly not about to start now.

So how can we help cancer patients decide to take the next step to exercise?  It’s certainly something that is near and dear to my heart but a study from last year found that the best plan to support patients with exercise starts before stepping into the gym  Let’s take at how this works.

Research in Denmark including both breast and cancer patients decided to do something a little differently.  They wanted to find patients diagnosed with cancer who did NOT exercise and had no interest in starting.  These patients indicated that exercise is boring, that they don’t have the discipline to exercise, and stress from work all made it impossible to exercise.

But hold on a minute.  We know lots of people who don’t exercise for these exact reasons so why should this be different for cancer patients?  What’s different is the diagnosis.  And that’s what makes exercise and lifestyle change so important.  But being diagnosed didn’t change anything.  The patients in the study did NOT attempt to start exercise after being diagnosed.  The ‘transformation’ of these exercise haters didn’t start with diagnosis – it took four phases.

Phase 1

The first phase is called the “transformational step”.  This happened when each cancer patient was provided with information and education about the benefits of exercise including how exercise can help to decrease the side effects of chemo treatment.  But it’s not just the information.  It’s that the information and education was provided by someone trusted by the patient – a health care professional and member of the patient’s team. 

Patient indicated that this phase

  •  Improved their mood
  • Made them feel safe with choosing exercis
  • Reduced the feeling of being powerless against cancer
  • Gave them a positive focus (exercise) instead of thinking of chemo

Phase 2

This “discovery phase” occurred when patients were able to see AND feel the difference exercise was making.  Their bodies felt better with exercise.  Patients discovered their ability to affect their body and to feel better not only physically but also emotionally.  Cancer patients were beginning their journey of empowerment through exercise.

Phase 3

Once patients were able to see and feel the benefits of exercise during chemo, their mindset about exercise started to change.  Patients started to set personal exercise goals and their exercise beliefs were becoming quite different from when they had their initial interview at the start of the study.

These are some big changes!

Phase 4

With all these benefits, patients started to reprioritize – the final transformation phase.  Patients started to make the time for exercise, and their behaviours with work, family, and leisure time changed in order to continue with their new ‘exercise habit’.


A number of patients in this small study needed to take a break immediately after some treatments.  This averaged around 4 days and occurred because the treatment side effects were too severe to exercise.  But what was pretty amazing is that once they started to feel a bit better, patients got right back to exercising and returned to their program.  The cancer patients knew that exercise was providing benefits and wanted to keep plugging away.

I believe the importance of this Four Phase Model is that it sheds light on the need for health care professionals to adapt an early standard for Cancer Exercise Education.  By informing cancer patients about the benefits of exercise – even during treatment and even if they have never exercised before – patients are able to make an educated choice, feeling safe and empowered with professional insight directed right to them.  This gives patients a better opportunity to utilize available tools, adapt their lifestyle, and make healthy choices for their future.

A survey of European cancer survivors found that only 25% of patients were meeting the guideline levels for physical activity.  If these patients were part of an early standard like the one in this study, it is certainly possible that more patients would be exercising today and reaping all the amazing benefits.

Adamsen, Anderson et al. Rethinking Exercise Identity: a qualitative study of physically inactive cancer patients’ transforming process while undergoing chemotherapy


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