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Exercise and cancer: health benefits

Sport and exercise are not only essential for healthy people, but can also help people cope better with everyday life in cases of cancer and tumor-related fatigue.

Sport despite cancer

An active lifestyle with sufficient sport and exercise has numerous positive effects. These include

  • Health benefits:
    Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, certain types of cancer, and other chronic diseases. Exercise helps to lose weight, improve bone health, and strengthen the immune system. Regular sporting activities also reduce the risk of age-related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
  • Mental health:
    Exercise releases endorphins, which can act as natural mood enhancers. Exercise can reduce stress, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and increase overall wellbeing.
  • cognition
    Exercise can improve cognitive function, including memory, attention, and concentration. It can also promote learning and increase mental clarity.
  • Social interaction: Sport provides an opportunity to connect with other people and build social ties. Team sports promote collaboration, team spirit and social skills, while individual sports can strengthen independence and self-confidence.
  • Improving sleep quality:
    Regular physical activity can improve sleep quality and duration, which in turn supports overall well-being and performance during the day.

An active lifestyle with regular exercise also reduces the risk of certain types of cancer, including breast, colorectal and esophageal cancer [1]. This effect was also reflected in the risk of relapse of developing cancer again after cancer [1]. Although the exact biological mechanisms of exercise on cancer cells have not yet been clarified, it is assumed that the increased blood flow to the body and promotion of the immune system during movement make it difficult for cancer cells to grow or survive. Cancer cells also need the sugar Glucose, which is consumed more during exercise and is then less available to cancer cells. Exercise also lowers levels of sex and growth hormones, which can increase cancer cell growth. In women with hormone-related breast cancer, for example, exercise lowers estrogen levels and has a similar effect to anti-hormonal drug therapy.

Even during treatment, exercise can reduce the side effects of cancer and the side effects of the therapy [2]. Is cancer or treatment caused by fatigue, the so-called tumor-related fatigue, accompanied, exercise can also provide relief here. Studies have shown that tumor-related fatigue can be reduced by up to 35% through regular training and the quality of life can be improved [3].

The right balance

Physical exercise doesn't have to mean working out completely to achieve positive health effects. It is more important to be permanently active, to integrate active routines into everyday life and to have fun doing it. Which sport The right one is an individual decision, as sport and exercise should also bring joy and fun.

Deutsche Krebshilfe recommends moving 180 minutes a week: whether one hour three days a week or 15-30 minutes five to six days is up to the individual.
The metabolic equivalent MET (metabolic equivalent task) is also used as a measure, which makes the energy consumption of different activities comparable. The metabolic equivalent represents a guideline for the energy requirements of activities:

  • 10-12 MET: Quick jogging, HIIT
  • 8 MET: Swimming
  • 7 MET: playing soccer, skiing or slow jogging
  • 5 MET: Gardening
  • 4 MET: cycling, walking,
  • 3 MET: walking, domestic activities such as shopping, dusting

More strenuous activities therefore score more points than less strenuous ones. A target value of 18-25 MET per week is recommended. 1 MET corresponds to the energy consumption of one kilocalorie per kilogram of body weight per hour. Here are a few examples:

  • A person weighing 75kg goes swimming for one hour. The energy consumption is approximately 75kg x 8 MET = 600 kcal. To reach the weekly target, the person would have to swim three times.
  • A person weighing 80kg works in the garden for 2 hours. The energy consumption is 80kg x (2h x 5MET) = 800 kcal. To reach the weekly target, the person would have to work in the garden for two to three more hours.

The metabolic equivalent provides an orientation for energy consumption in various activities. However, as a guideline or target, it can help you become more active in everyday life.

Which Movement type And what intensity is good can, however, be influenced by the stage of therapy. It is recommended to discuss sports activities with the treatment provider to ensure possible contraindications.


[1] Leitzmann, M. et al.: European Code against Cancer 4th edition: Physical activity and cancer. Cancer Epidemiology 2015

[2] German Cancer Aid: Exercise and sport for cancer. Blue Guides series, as of April 2021, available at:

[3] Brown, J.C.; Huedo-Medina, T.B.; et al.: Efficacy of Exercise Interventions in Modulating Cancer-Related Fatigue among Adult Cancer Survivors: A Meta-AnalysisExercise and Cancer-Related Fatigue: A Meta-Analysis. 2011. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, 20(1), 123-133.