Resistance training, which is exercise that incorporates weights, weight machines or elastic bands, appears to be a safe and effective way to help strengthen muscles during and after cancer treatment, according to an analysis published in the November 2013 Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Researchers analyzed data from 13 studies that followed 502 cancer survivors who participated in resistance training programs for periods of 12 weeks and up to a year. The studies included men and women who were undergoing or had completed treatment for a variety of cancers, including breast, prostate, and head and neck cancers.

Those who did moderate resistance training two to three times a week safely increased muscle mass and decreased body fat. Some studies included in the analysis also indicated that those who took part in resistance training felt less cancer-related fatigue. Other studies suggested that resistance training had a beneficial effect on quality of life.

“Resistance training can help survivors build back the strength they’ve lost and feel less fatigued,” says Barbara Strasser, an exercise physiologist at the University for Health Sciences, Medical Informatics and Technology in Hall in Tirol, Austria, who led the study. Resistance training can also combat some of the side effects of treatment, including muscle weakness and decreased range of motion, she says.

Before You Start

Talk with your doctor and consider meeting with a personal trainer.

Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program, says Barbara Strasser, an exercise physiologist from the University for Health Sciences, Medical Informatics and Technology in Hall in Tirol, Austria. “Resistance training, like any form of exercise, challenges the heart,” she says, and certain treatments, such as chemotherapy and targeted therapies, can affect cardiovascular function.

Strasser suggests meeting with a physical therapist or personal trainer who has experience working with cancer survivors and who can guide you on safe and effective lifting techniques. “I recommend [starting with] only a few exercises at a low intensity [low weight] until the correct form is mastered,” says Strasser.

To find an expert, search online for an American College of Sports Medicine certified cancer exercise trainer or check to see if your local YMCA offers a Livestrong cancer survivor exercise program.

Exercising with free weights or resistance bands doesn’t require expensive equipment and can be done at home. Even a little exertion can have an impact, according to the analysis—which found that light to moderate resistance training twice a week is equally effective or even more effective at increasing muscle strength than heavy resistance training.

In addition, one study included in the analysis followed more than 8,000 men and indicated that higher muscle strength was associated with a lower risk of cancer death.