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Photography courtesy of Pat Sheffler

Shortly after his diagnosis with stage 3 prostate cancer, Pat Sheffler asked his doctors about working out during treatment.

They said the more active you are, the better — advice Sheffler admits he took pretty far.

“Even though there were times that I didn’t necessarily feel like it, I made the conscious decision to move as much as I could,” he tells Healthline.

“I enjoyed it, but I just sort of ended up going to the extreme.”

Sheffler, then 53, was already active prior to the diagnosis. But he encourages anyone experiencing chronic disease or cancer to do what they can to stay physically active, even if they aren’t used to exercise.

“Even if it’s taking 20 steps a day, and then 40 the next, and then 100, eventually you’re walking a mile,” he says.

Sheffler’s advice — and that of his doctors — is backed by research. Exercise is not only safe for cancer survivors but likely has positive effects on cancer prevention, progression, and survival.

A 2019 report found strong evidence that physical activity improves longevity among cancer survivors. The report was based on conclusions from 40 experts on exercise and cancer.

Research into prostate cancer suggests that staying active after diagnosis is associated with 33% lower risk of death from cancer and 45% lower risk of death from any cause.

With increasing evidence that exercise can help manage symptoms and delay disease progression, many view it as a major opportunity in prostate cancer treatment. A 2017 paper on exercise and advanced prostate cancer called physical activity “provocative medicine.”

For survivors like Sheffler, the strongest evidence might be found in how exercise impacted their own journeys through diagnosis and treatment.

“I think there really is a connection between your outlook, your mental attitude, and your physical well-being,” he tells Healthline.

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Photography courtesy of Stephen Eisenmann and Elizabeth Ventura

Stephen Eisenmann, who received a stage 4 prostate cancer diagnosis in 2016, recalls that it was sometimes challenging to stay active during treatment.

“I went through six cycles of chemo with hormone therapy as my first level of treatment.

“There were days when I would be somewhat fatigued and wouldn’t necessarily want to exercise as much. I tried to push through that because I always felt better after I was able to exercise,” he says.

“Mentally and physically I just felt better.”

Eisenmann notes that advice from the Prostate Cancer Foundation helped him on his journey.

In addition to encouraging exercise, they advocated for keeping a positive mental outlook and eating a nutritious diet.

“These are the three things that you can control,” he recalls.

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Photography courtesy of Stephen Eisenmann and Elizabeth Ventura

Elizabeth Ventura, Eisenmann’s wife, told Healthline that exercise became an important way for her to support him — and to receive the support she needed as a caregiver.

“As a caregiver, you can feel very helpless,“ she says.

But simply being there and encouraging your loved one can go a long way. On days when Eisenmann didn’t feel as well, exercising together made a huge difference.

“It got him to the gym, but it also got me to the gym, and I needed that desperately for my own mental health.

“A lot of caregivers don’t want to admit that they need to make a commitment to take care of themselves as much as they make a commitment to take care of their loved one,” she adds.

For Ventura, attending a yoga class on her own helped her to manage the family’s journey with Eisenmann’s prostate cancer diagnosis.

“I’d just go to yoga and cry. It was such an inclusive place that I sort of processed that emotion,“ she says.

“It’s a great way to relieve the stress that goes along with the illness. It’s a way to demonstrate control over your body at a time when it feels like it’s out of control and not doing what you wanted it to do.”

The majority of men with prostate cancer aren’t regularly active. And most who receive a prostate cancer diagnosis do not engage in an exercise program, according to a 2021 research paper.

The paper identified several common barriers to exercise. Two of the biggest were:

  • lack of time
  • side effects of prostate cancer treatment

Sheffler and Eisenmann both acknowledge that side effects of treatment can be huge obstacles to physical activity.

However, Sheffler says that exercise can help with the mental aspect of treatment, even when you experience side effects like exhaustion. Exercise helped keep his mind busy and energized.

Research backs this as well. In one 2017 meta-analysis that included data from more than 11,000 people with cancer, exercise was found to be more effective than any drug at improving cancer-related fatigue, both during and after treatment.

For Eisenmann, support from his employer during treatment helped him stay engaged at work and maintain an exercise routine.

“I continued to work and that, from a mental standpoint, along with the exercise, kept me very active,” he says.

For anyone who hasn’t been active prior to diagnosis, both men recommend starting small and considering combining efforts with others. Your support network can help you find time in your schedule to be active and encourage you to stick with it through the ups and downs of treatment.

“Start with walking,” Eisenmann recommends. ”You can walk with your spouse or a friend, if you want someone to give you support.”

Mindset shifts

  • Think of exercise as part of your prostate cancer treatment, not a separate task you have to complete. An exercise specialist may be a valuable addition to your care team.
  • Physical activity might feel daunting when you’re tired or experiencing other side effects, but it can actually help with fatigue.
  • Expect that there will be days when you’re more fatigued than usual, especially after chemo. Taking a break from exercise doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
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Photography courtesy of Pat Sheffler

Ventura suggests that physical activity doesn’t need to be unpleasant. Activities you already like can get you moving.

“Don’t underestimate the power of dancing. Music will definitely change your mood and help light up those endorphins in your brain. People who hate exercise often don’t mind dancing,” she says.

Finding something you love is also Sheffler’s advice.

“It’s amazing how you can create activities that are physical around things you don’t even realize [make you] physically active.

”I think the biggest piece of advice from me for people who aren’t active is to just find something that you like,” he adds.

For example, if you love flowers, try taking a walk in a flower field, Sheffler suggests.

Finding the right type of movement

Some side effects from treatment, including neuropathy or complications from surgery, may make certain exercises unsafe. Consider raising any concerns with your healthcare team. They’ll help you identify safe ways to stay active.

Some lower-impact exercise forms include:

  • yoga
  • chair exercises
  • gentle resistance movements, such as lifting light weights

Practice gratitude

Eisenmann and Ventura started a practice of keeping a gratitude journal, which Ventura says helped them to stay focused on the positive on a daily basis.

“It gave us that moment to focus on the good in our lives, what we could control, what we were grateful for. That did a whole lot to keep both of us very much in the present and focused on everything that was good instead of imagining [the unknown],” she says.

Find reliable sources of information

Eisenmann recommends that people seek out accurate sources of information about their diagnosis.

“There’s a lot of information out on the internet. Some of the stuff out there is really, really scary,” he says. ”The Prostate Cancer Foundation has accurate, reliable information.”

Be your own advocate

Eisenmann and Sheffler agree that being your own advocate is incredibly important.

Sheffler also wants more people to be proactive about their personal health.

“I really encourage men and women, everybody, to get checked regularly for [common health conditions] and for men to get checked for prostate cancer,” he states.

Research shows physical activity can improve outcomes for people with prostate cancer, but many with the disease aren’t active.

Exercise can help with the physical and mental aspects of treatment. It can be hard to get started, though. Lack of time and treatment side effects are common hurdles.

Shifting your mindset, starting small, and finding activities you enjoy may help you get moving, according to some prostate cancer survivors.

Engaging with nature, dancing, or participating in sports can all help people to stay active as they manage cancer.