How to Build Muscle After Chemo

Most cancer patients experience changes in their bodies during and after chemotherapy. Weight loss, muscle loss, and extreme tiredness are blatantly observed and so does the loss of appetite. At this point, people with cancer must learn to manage their symptoms to feel better and continue to do more of their usual activities.

By strengthening the body, a cancer patient has a higher chance of finishing the whole course of their treatment.

What Causes the Loss of Weight and Muscles in Cancer Patients?

Weight and muscle loss happens because of cancer itself. The body releases cytokines, a substance that can reduce the appetite and result in weight loss and muscle loss, to combat cancer. Cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation are also common causes as they bring about a decrease in appetite. The side effects of the treatment such as mouth sores, nausea, and vomiting can affect normal eating which further contributes to the loss of weight and muscles. Cancer patients feel fatigue most of the time, and the decrease in physical activities also adds to muscle loss.

Is There A Way to Prevent Weight and Muscle Loss?

Talk with your health care team to help manage the side effects of your treatment. They can prescribe drugs including anti-nausea medicines and steroid pills to boost your appetite and stop further loss of weight and muscles. If you experience anxiety or depression, it is recommended to inform your doctor as they can also affect your appetite and strength.

While medications may prevent weight and muscle loss, they could not help in rebuilding the lost muscle tissue. You will need more than a pill to gain weight and grow your muscles after chemo.

How Can I Gain Weight and Build My Strength?

Besides taking doctor-prescribed medicines, there are other ways you can do to keep your body strong. Proper hydration, well-balanced nutrition, and physical exercise are essential for weight gain and strength-building.

• Include protein to a balanced diet.

Eat a balanced diet that includes protein sources like poultry, pork, beef, soy nuts, tofu, and dairy products.

• Eat massive amounts of nutritious foods.

Increase the amount of calorie-intake by eating more frequently. If your appetite is the problem, try eating smaller meals but increase the frequency. Smoothies, milkshakes, and purees are easy to digest, add milk or protein powders for more nutrients.

• Keep hydrated with liquids all through the day.

Although water is the best for hydration, you can also source fluids from a sports drink, soups, and popsicles.

• Maintain a healthcare journal.

It will help your health care team if you write down the details of the side effects you’re experiencing in a journal. These include your diet, type and amount of fluid intake, medications, and your physical activities and their impact on your energy levels and mood.

• Engage in physical exercises.

Physical exercises help in building muscle and improving energy levels. If you are tired and weak, start with at least three minutes of walking and build up from there. Some exercises you can do while sitting that can improve your strength and flexibility include making a fist and moving your arms up and down and front to back.

• Focus on your breathing.

Maintain a good posture to help your breathing and reduce fatigue. When climbing stairs, breathe out with every step so you won’t be as exhausted when you arrive at the top.

When Should I Begin Exercising?

Many doctors advise that patients begin exercising after chemo. Exercise plays a significant role in reducing the side effects of cancer treatment such as weakness, fatigue, depression, decreased range of motion, neuropathy, and lymphedema. Exercise can help lower the risk of 13 types of cancer, according to a study. This is why even non-cancer patients should exercise regularly as a preventive measure.

But how do you start an exercise program? Doctors say that you should do it very carefully. Here are useful steps to follow to make exercising successful for you.

• Discuss treatment side effects with your doctor.

You must know what to expect after treatment. This is to help you shape an exercise plan based on your unique needs. Some cancer medications can instigate muscle and joint soreness while others can increase the risk of dehydration or affect your balance. If you had undergone surgery, it would help to know which of the lymph nodes and muscle tissues were affected. See a lymphedema therapist if you’re at risk to acquire lymphedema, a condition wherein fluid accumulates in soft tissues of the body. The therapist will guide your exercise program and keep track of your condition as you go along.

• Establish clear goals.

Setting specific, achievable goals for short-term and long-term really helps. Whether your goals are to improve your mood, more range of motion, or gain weight to build muscle mass, adjust them with every change in your health, family life, and work.

• Exercise when you have more energy.

As your fatigue and pain levels change every hour or every day, the best time to exercise is when your energy levels are high.

• Keep to a flexible routine.

Always listen to what your body tells you. Make your routine flexible so you can adjust them based on your mood and energy levels.

• Be patient with your recovery speed.

Healing is unique and different from person to person. The speed of your recovery depends on the treatment types that you received and the fitness level you were in prior to treatment. Don’t rush especially if it’s your first time to exercise. Start slow and increase your activity when you feel comfortable enough to do so.

• Make walking a part of your exercise regimen.

Walking is the easiest thing you can do to regain your strength. Start walking around the house then venture outside for short walks. Increase the frequency and distance of your walk in a phase you’re comfortable with. Find a walking buddy like a family member, a neighbour, a friend, or someone with a similar condition to stay motivated. As short as 15 minutes of walking daily can boost your mood and energy level.

• Consult your doctor for any changes in your health.

After chemotherapy or other cancer treatment, it is crucial that your doctor monitors your joint and muscle pain, fatigue, nausea, and blood count. There may be lingering concerns in your health that needs an evaluation from lymphedema or physical therapist.

Are Exercises Different In Cancer Patients and Healthy People?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends an average of 2.5 hours moderate exercise and two days a week of muscle-strengthening workouts for adults. This applies to cancer patients as well but the difference lies in the intensity, and frequency of exercises. Cancer patients are dealing with the emotional and physical side effects that the disease and treatments have done to their bodies, which is why they can only exercise based on their energy level and mood.

There are four fitness areas that both healthy people and cancer patients should focus on aerobic exercise, balance, stretching, and strength training. Let’s discuss how each exercise benefits cancer patients.

Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercises such as walking, running, and bicycling increases the heart rate. By interspersing aerobic or cardiovascular exercises with strength training, the body’s metabolism and lean muscle mass increase while the body fat decreases. Walking is generally safe for people who had cancer treatment.

Balance Exercises

Cancer drugs can affect the balance of some cancer patients which puts you at risk for a fall or tumble. If you had chemotherapy, your bone mass is reduced, making you more prone to bone fracture. It will only take one fall for you to break a bone. This is why balance exercises are essential for cancer patients. Simple exercises like walking in a narrow path and heel raises can already help regain your balance. Experts advise starting balance exercises immediately after treatment.


Cancer patients who had undergone surgery will feel weakness in specific parts of their bodies. Breast cancer survivors who had mastectomies may feel a weakness in the rotator cuff of their shoulder girdles. Doctors recommend stretching exercises for the areas of surgery to help patients regain mobility in the concerned areas.

Strength Training

Ageing makes people lose some muscles and strength training helps by fighting muscle loss and toning the muscles. But the bone density and muscle cells are different between a person with no cancer and a cancer patient. What an average woman will lose in a decade will only take a year for a woman who had undergone chemotherapy to lose. Although strength training will not augment bone density, it does help in maintaining what’s left.

To ensure that you can safely do any of these four exercises, you must consult your doctor before you begin your exercise plan. These strengthening and muscle toning videos teach simple exercises that are easy to follow and you can do outside or inside your home.


Muscle loss and weight loss are common side effects of cancer and the treatments applied to fight cancer. Yet, there are ways to prevent further deterioration of the bones and muscles during and after the radiation or chemotherapy treatments. Medications, balanced nutrition, proper hydration, and physical exercises can help manage the side effects and help you gain back the weight and muscles you have lost. Check in with your doctor for evaluation of your recovery progress and ask for help to address lingering health issues you might have. And most importantly, be patient. Building muscle after chemo takes time and lots of work. You’ll be able to attain your fitness goals if you persist and stick to your exercise plan until the end.