WHEN YOU’RE IN PAIN, the last thing you probably want to think about is exercise. But recent findings suggest that physical activity can actually help reduce cancer-related pain and improve overall quality of life.

A review of 40 research studies, published Aug. 15 by the Cochrane Collaboration, investigated the effect of exercise on nearly 3,700 cancer survivors. It found that those who took part in physical activity—walking, strength training, resistance training, cycling, qigong, tai chi or yoga—reported less pain at an average 12-week follow-up than those who did not. (Exercise was also found to improve body image, self-esteem, emotional well-being, sexuality and social functioning, and to reduce fatigue, sleep disturbance and anxiety.)

Not all cancer-related pain is the same. People with metastatic cancer often experience bone pain caused by bone metastases, says Andrea L. Cheville, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who conducts research on cancer pain. In contrast, people with early stage cancers may have more musculoskeletal pain, which typically stems from altering the way they walk or how they perform daily tasks to compensate for pain following surgery or radiation.

Regardless of what is causing the pain, dealing with it by trying to move less has the potential to make it worse. “When people are in pain, they often don’t move, so they become weaker,” explains Cheville. “As a result, when they do move, it may cause more discomfort.”

Cheville recommends that cancer patients get some physical activity at least once a day; those taking pain medication should plan activity around their medication schedule so that they are moving while their medication is giving the greatest relief. 

Patients experiencing pain should speak with their oncologist before starting new physical activities or exercise routines. “Some people need a physical therapist because they may have had nerve injuries or other medical conditions,” says Cheville. Those patients “need someone with expertise to guide them and explain how to exercise safely.” In addition, although strength training is typically OK for cancer patients, Cheville recommends that anyone who has had lymph nodes removed or irradiated or who has bone metastases discuss with their doctor the best way to train safely.

Exercise doesn’t have to be complicated to be beneficial. Simply taking a regular walk can do the trick. Says Cheville, “Almost anybody can exercise with cancer.”

Move Your Body

Start small to make sure your exercise goals stick.

The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors engage in 30 minutes of physical activity a day. But you don’t have to start with 30 minutes; you can work up to it at your own pace. Taking a walk down the block or around your neighborhood is a good way to get started. Don’t like walking? Consider dance, yoga or tai chi. The aim is to get your body up and moving. Set small goals for yourself and ask your friends or family to get involved. If it’s fun, and you have an exercise partner, it’s much easier to keep with it.