Benefits of Exercise With Lung Cancer

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Woman jogging up stairs

When you have lung cancer, a mild exercise program can help you feel better mentally and physically, boost your energy level, improve your quality of life, and make it easier to cope with cancer treatment. Some research even suggests exercise leads to a better recovery and reduces the chances of cancer coming back. Get an idea of the types of exercises that may be appropriate and ask your doctor about the best program for you. A physical therapist, cancer exercise specialist, exercise physiologist, or pulmonary rehabilitation specialist can be a welcome addition to your healthcare team.

Taking Care of Yourself While Fighting Cancer

Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises for those with lung cancer may sound like an oxymoron, because you’re likely already having trouble breathing. What these exercises do is strengthen your diaphragm and abdominal muscles so they can support more air moving through your lungs more easily.

One commonly recommended breathing exercise for those with lung cancer is called “diaphragmatic breathing.” It includes the following steps repeated throughout the day:

  1. Sit or stand up straight
  1. Put one hand on your abdomen
  1. Breathe in through your nose and push your abdomen out at the same time (You should be able to see and feel your hand moving out away from you.)
  1. Purse your lips, breathe out slowly through your mouth, and push your abdomen in and up at the same time
  1. Breathe in through your nose slowly


Once you can breathe better, you should find it easier to exercise. Many people also notice an improvement in their mood and a greater ability to manage the many emotions that come with lung cancer treatment, including fear, stress, and anger.

Stretching Exercises

Upper body stretching is particularly beneficial for those with lung cancer. It improves posture, expands the chest cavity, and increases lung capacity. That means you can breathe better with less shortness of breath. Stretching other parts of your body, too, can help ease muscle stiffness, which may be at its worst after radiation therapy. Stiffness caused by radiation can, in fact, linger for a year or longer after your last treatment. Stretching daily is usually recommended to improve and maintain flexibility and range of motion.

Yoga is a type of exercise that combines breathing and stretching and adds meditation. Certain poses called “chest openers” are particularly beneficial to those with lung cancer. Caregivers can benefit from yoga, too. Research has shown it can help increase energy and help you take better care of your loved one with lung cancer.

Aerobic Exercises

You may need to start your exercise program with breathing and stretching, working your way up to aerobic exercise. This type of exercise increases your heart rate, makes the heart stronger, and builds lung capacity. Walking, dancing, and swimming are all aerobic exercises. Your doctor may recommend that you keep your aerobic exercise brief at first, 10 minutes at a time when you feel up to it. The time may be increased gradually until you can practice aerobic exercise the same amount of time recommended for adults who don’t have lung cancer, 150 minutes every week.   

In one study, participants with advanced lung cancer were provided with a fitness tracker to count their steps. Those with a higher number of steps reported having a better quality of life and less pain and depression than those with a lower number of steps.

Strength Training

Strength training is often the last type of exercise to be added to a program for those with lung cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy have a tendency to weaken muscles, as does the extensive rest needed during treatment. Through strength training, you use weights or bands to build your muscle mass back. As you grow stronger, you’ll also probably feel more able to do the activities you enjoy, from work to play. As with aerobic exercise, you may need to limit strength training at first to 10 minutes at a time.

With any type of exercise for those with lung cancer, a little patience is in order. Try not to get frustrated if you can’t exercise with the intensity you had before your diagnosis as soon as you would like. Keep in mind exercise isn’t a good idea for some people with lung cancer. Physical activity may need to wait if you’re struggling with extreme fatigue, experiencing severe anemia, your immune system is compromised, or your balance is off. Make sure your doctor is aware of any symptoms you’re experiencing when you discuss the best exercise program for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Apr 1
  1. The Benefits of Exercise for People with Lung Cancer. American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  2. The importance of exercise in lung cancer treatment. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Public Health.
  3. Exercising with lung cancer. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
  4. Physical Activity and Lung Cancer. American Lung Association.
  5. Yoga Benefits Lung Cancer Patients & Their Caregivers. Oncology Times.
  6. Assessing the Correlation Between Physical Activity and Quality of Life in Advanced Lung Cancer. Integrative Cancer Therapies.
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