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Exercise and Lymphoma: How To Stay Active

Updated on March 04, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Anastasia Climan


Whether you’re new to exercise or have been working out for years, it’s a good time to prioritize physical activity when you have cancer. Although the stress and fatigue of lymphoma treatment may get in the way at times, exercise is an excellent way to help you feel better and work through the physical and emotional impact of cancer treatment.

Benefits of Physical Activity

Exercise can make a world of difference in the quality of life and survival rates for those with lymphoma. Specifically, there are several benefits of physical activity for people with lymphoma:

  • Increased energy
  • Better appetite
  • Improved mental health
  • Better pain management

Increased Energy

Getting started is typically the hardest part, but you may find that exercise is the perfect remedy for lethargy and fatigue once you get moving. “I find that if I force myself to get up and do a little bit, I end up having more energy,” said one member. “What is it they say? A body in motion stays in motion, while a body that’s stagnant stays stagnant.”

Not only can physical activity help you feel immediately energized, but it can also improve sleep for better stamina throughout your waking hours.

Studies on people receiving stem cell transplants for blood cancer found that maintaining an exercise program during hospitalization significantly reduced fatigue. A mix of aerobic exercise, resistance training, and balance and flexibility exercises can give you a well-rounded program for both short-term and long-term health benefits (including a reduced risk of heart disease).

Better Appetite

Some lymphoma treatments can lower your appetite or make you feel full soon after you start to eat. Exercise can rev up your hunger cues, helping to combat a diminished appetite from lymphoma treatments.

Improved Mental Health

Perhaps one of the most underrated benefits of physical activity is its profound effects on mental health. One member of MyLymphomaTeam shared how exercise improves their outlook:

“From my experience, if I miss a day of exercise, I just want to continue to sit, which then makes me feel depressed. Exercise can be taking a walk, gardening, aerobics, etc., and exercise releases endorphins (feel-good hormones). So, I have to force myself, and when I do, most of the time, I feel better. If I’m not feeling well, I force myself to at least get dressed and get fresh air. Just doing that elevates my mood.”

Better Pain Management

Another reason to prioritize physical activity is for pain management. If you have access to a pool, look into low-impact water aerobics. One MyLymphomaTeam member explained how much of a difference water aerobics has made for them and encouraged others to give it a try.

“You may want to consider some other form of exercise, like yoga, which is very good for joint pain,” they said. “I go to deep water aerobics three times a week, and it has helped me incredibly. I have cancer-induced peripheral neuropathy. Deep water aerobics has been a game-changer for me. I am in much less pain.”

Another member said, “I am fighting my chemo-induced neuropathy with everything I can think of. I think getting extra blood flow to the affected limbs and nerves will help.”

Addressing Barriers to Exercise

People with lymphoma may face barriers to exercise that other people don’t. Fortunately, your doctor may be able to help you overcome these barriers so you can fit in a healthy movement routine that works for you.

Anemia and Fatigue

The unintentional weight loss and fatigue that often accompany lymphoma can leave you feeling like you’d rather stay in bed than work out or move. Anemia — low levels of red blood cells — is another common problem. As one member shared, “I am finding that because I am anemic, the exercise really wiped me out.”

Fortunately, once anemia is recognized, your health care team can address it. The same member noted, “I have started taking a special type of iron that should help soon.” Another member said, “A couple of months ago, I found out that I’m very anemic. They were very close to placing me on regular infusion treatments. I’m taking supplements now instead. I’m maintaining a steady course in that regard.”

Safety Concerns

In most cases, people with lymphoma can participate in the same physical activities as those without a cancer diagnosis. However, listening to your body and collaborating with your health care team are always good ideas, especially if you’re new to exercise or undergoing cancer treatment. Some of the typical issues people with lymphoma may notice include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness in the hands and feet due to peripheral neuropathy
  • Risk of bleeding or bruising (thrombocytopenia)
  • Shortness of breath due to residual effects of chemotherapy on the heart and lungs

If you struggle with grip, balance, or higher bleeding risk, be sure to choose a safe form of exercise where you’re less likely to fall, such as a steady stationary bike or a treadmill that you can hold on to. Low-impact sports, such as golf, swimming, or hiking, are generally better choices than contact sports such as basketball.

Infection Risk

If you’re concerned about your immune system and susceptibility to infection, a crowded gym or public pool may not be the best place for you to be active. Exercising outdoors is a great option when the weather is nice, but it’s not always feasible depending on the climate you live in.

Instead of relying on expensive home-exercise equipment, you can find free online videos to stay active. Options to improve your muscle strength and mobility include walking, going up and down the stairs, stretching, and exercises like sit-ups and planks. You also could try a dance class, pick up an active hobby like tennis, or boost your physical activity with cleaning and other housework.

Hospitalization

Hospitalization and treatment may disrupt your routine. MyLymphomaTeam members starting at all different fitness levels have found ways to move more during and after lymphoma treatment. Taking advantage of the resources available at your treatment center, like a gym or physical therapy, can make it easier to remain active.

One member discussed how they managed to stay active by adjusting their routine through treatment. “I exercised through chemo conditioning and high-dose chemo at the hospital,” they said. “On day eight of high-dose chemo, I stopped going to the gym at my hospital. I could still lie in my bed and do pilates and some stretching when I felt like crap. I had a physical therapist that came by with exercises like standing squats and balancing exercises. Walking can take the place of running until you start getting your energy back.”

Even if you can’t always do a full workout, a little bit of movement and connection with your body may still be beneficial. Another member shared, “I am glad to know that the hospital where my transplant will be performed has a gym and exercise equipment available. Since my first of six rounds of R-CHOP and during the new chemo, I have continued to exercise even when I just did not want to. Fitness has been such a big part of my life, and I truly believe in the benefits of exercise and nutrition.”

Accountability

For many people — with and without lymphoma — accountability is key in reaching goals. Accountability can come in the form of an exercise buddy, a fitness tracking device, a calendar where you mark off the days you worked out, or an alert on your phone that reminds you when it’s time to move more. Anything you can do to track and report your exercise is likely to help you stay consistent in your movement goals.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLymphomaTeam is the social network for people with lymphoma. More than 10,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lymphoma.

Have you found ways to stay active with lymphoma? What advice do you have for others? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MyLymphomaTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anastasia Climan is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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