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Safety Consideration for Exercise Training with Oncology Patients

Stephen Morris, PT, PhD, FACSM

December 31, 2018



What are the safety considerations for exercise training for oncology patients?


Whenever we put anyone on a treadmill, on a bicycle, or have them lift weights, we're increasing the physiologic demand on that patient. In most cases, they can adjust to that increased physiologic demand and perform, but every now and then you may encounter an individual who is unable to adapt to that particular increase in physiologic stress, and it can bring about serious adverse effects.


There are several contraindications for exercise testing, including the following:

  • Acute MI (within two days)
  • Unstable angina
  • Uncontrolled cardiac arrhythmias
  • Uncompensated symptomatic CHF
  • Uncontrolled metabolic disease
  • Severe arterial hypertension (at rest)
    • Systolic BP > 200 mmHg
    • Diastolic BP> 110 mmHg

First off, any sort of questionable cardiac pathology should get your attention very quickly. Unstable angina is an absolute contraindication to aerobic conditioning. When the authors speak about uncontrolled metabolic disease, in today's world they're talking about uncontrolled diabetes. You don't want to work with a patient with diabetes when his or her serum glucose levels are below 50 or over 450. In either case, it's inappropriate, and there are other medical professionals that they need to be seeing as opposed to a physical therapist.

In addition, the ACSM has set forth some guidelines with regard to blood pressure measurements that you might want to remember. The first relates to severe arterial hypertension at rest. If a patient shows up at your clinic with a systolic blood pressure of over 200, or diastolic blood pressure of more than 110, do not treat them. In my world, I would tell them to immediately be taken to the nearest ER or to their primary care physician. If it's over 200 systolic pressure, don't exercise; if it's more than 110 diastolic pressure, don't exercise. We need to take blood pressure measurements on all of our patients, cancer survivors or not.

Cardiovascular Response to Exercise

There are well-defined, well-recognized cardiovascular responses to acute exercise. The CV responses to acute exercise include:

  • Increase in heart rate
  • Increase in systolic pressure, and that increase can reach 200 millimeters mercury (mm Hg). 
  • Increase in the volume of blood pumped by the heart (i.e., cardiac output or CO)
  • Increase in the amount of blood pumped per heart beat (i.e., stroke volume or SV)
  • Increase in respiration rate (RR)
  • Increase in the amount of myocardial oxygen consumption (MVO2).
  • O2 saturation should not change much. O2 saturations should remain nearly normal in individuals that are exercising. In patients with pulmonary disease, it's a little bit of a different story. They may be safe to exercise with reduced O2 saturation, given the fact that they live in anaerobic world.
  • Diastolic pressure should remain essentially unchanged with increasing exertional demand. It might go up or down by five millimeters, but it should remain within that range.

The reason I'm bringing up these points is that you need to monitor heart rates, you can monitor O2 saturations, you can pay attention to respiration rates, even if you don't measure them. You can indirectly monitor either cardiac outputs or stroke volumes by looking for changes in skin color. If cardiac output becomes compromised, a whiteish pallor sets in, which is an indirect indication of reduced delivery of blood to the skin. I mention these because if there is any change that's adverse, you're on top of it. If the heart rate doesn't go up with increasing treadmill speed, stop the treadmill and find out why. If systolic pressure doesn't go up, there's a problem. If diastolic pressure goes up too much, there's a problem. If you know what is to be expected, but it is not achieved, then you know that there is a potential safety problem. One of the things that I strongly encourage you to do is to collect as much physiologic information as possible, including heart rate, blood pressures, O2 saturation, and the patient's self-report of their perceived exertion (RPE).

When to Stop an Exercise Session

According to the ACSM Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (10th edition, 2018), there are many reasons to stop an exercise session, including:

  • A drop or rise in diastolic pressure (DP) > 10 mmHg from baseline
  • An excessive rise in blood pressure:
    • Systolic pressure (SP) > 250 mmHg
    • Diastolic pressure (DP) > 115 mmHg
  • The onset of angina or angina-like symptoms
  • Increasing nervous system dysfunction (ataxia, dizziness, confusion, nausea) 
  • Signs of poor perfusion (cyanosis, pallor) indicating a failure to maintain appropriate cardiac output 
  • Inappropriate shortness of breath (SOB), excessive fatigue, wheezing, leg cramps

It is worth noting that shortness of breath is not in and of itself pathologic. If you have watched a football game recently, you saw healthy individuals experiencing shortness of breath. It's very appropriate, you expected it, you anticipated it, and you wouldn't give it another thought. However, for patients, their shortness of breath may be inappropriate. If they're walking across a level, flat surface and they're short of breath, there's something not right there. But if you've had them do a high-intensity interval workout and they're short of breath, you would expect that. Now that doesn't mean you can ignore it, but you can look at their heart rates, you can ask them how they're feeling, and make sure that all these other signals of safe physiology are also appropriate. You need to put shortness of breath in the context of where it's occurring, and then you have to ask yourself is that context safe or unsafe?

*from the course Incorporating Exercise Training into the Oncology Rehabilitation Setting  

stephen morris

Stephen Morris, PT, PhD, FACSM

Dr. Stephen Morris earned a Ph. D. in Exercise Science from the Univ. of Texas at Austin, completed an NIH post-doctoral fellowship in the Dept. of Physiology and Biophysics at UC Irvine.  He then earned a degree in physical therapy (PT) from Texas Woman’s University.  Since earning his PT license he has taught in 3 academic physical therapy programs, served both as a clinician and researcher in the Dept. of Rehabilitation Services of UT MD Anderson Cancer Center and as the director of Rehabilitation Services at St. Jude Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital.  He has published over 45 refereed journal articles and has spoken locally, nationally, and internationally on exercise in the oncology setting.  He recently completed a 4-year tenure as the President of American Physical Therapy’s (APTA) Academy of Oncologic Physical Therapy and as the APTA’s liaison to the Multidisciplinary Roundtable on Exercise and Cancer Prevention and Control.  This Roundtable was organized by the American College of Sports Medicine and endorsed specific exercise prescription for the management of adverse effects of cancer and its treatment.  Currently, he is a Professor in the Physical Therapy Dept. at Wingate University, serves on the editorial board of the Rehabilitation Oncology, and is the liaison between the Academy and the APTA

Related Courses

Cancer Related Comorbidities and Adverse Treatment Effects
Presented by Stephen Morris, PT, PhD, FACSM
Recorded Webinar


Stephen Morris, PT, PhD, FACSM
Course: #3592Level: Intermediate2 Hours
  'speaker is clear but maybe needs more updated evidence based studies'   Read Reviews
Cancer and its treatment are known to cause survivors to experience a number of comorbidities and adverse effects. Because physical therapy management of the cancer survivor must either focus on these comorbidities/adverse effects or treat them, physical therapists must have a fundamental understanding of the most common of conditions. This course is directly related to the practice of physical therapy and is therefore appropriate for the PT/PTA.

Oncologic Pharmacology for the Rehabilitation Professional
Presented by Stephen Morris, PT, PhD, FACSM
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Course: #3894Level: Intermediate2 Hours
  'excellant information for practice treatment of PT'   Read Reviews
A vast array of drugs are used to treat patients with cancer. This webinar will introduce the attendee to the basic pharmacology of these drugs, the mechanism of action of different classes of these drugs, and frequently observed adverse effects of these drugs. This course is directly related to the practice of physical therapy and is therefore appropriate for the PT/PTA.

Incorporating Exercise Training into the Oncology Rehabilitation Setting
Presented by Stephen Morris, PT, PhD, FACSM
Recorded Webinar


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Course: #3180Level: Intermediate2 Hours
  'The instructor was very knowledgeable about the subject matter'   Read Reviews
Exercise training is an essential but physiological stressful part of the physical therapy management of a cancer survivor. The purpose of this course is to introduce the participant to safely incorporating exercise training into the care and management of the cancer survivor.

Mindfulness: Beyond Guided Meditation
Presented by Jennifer Stone, PT, DPT, OCS, PHC
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Course: #3902Level: Intermediate2 Hours
  'Did a great job explaining/showing the positive impact mindfulness could have when incorporated into patient care'   Read Reviews
Mindfulness can be a really powerful cognitive-behavioral tool and has many relevant applications when treating patients with pain, especially chronic pain. Many courses for rehabilitation professionals teach guided meditation, which is an amazing tool. However, mindfulness has many other applications and opportunities for use in the treatment of patients with pain. This session discusses the history and science behind mindfulness, as well as provides a variety of practical mindfulness tools for the everyday practitioner. This course is directly related to the practice of physical therapy and is therefore appropriate for the PT/PTA.

Medical Screening – Part 3 Adult
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  'easy to follow, good diagrams'   Read Reviews
This course focuses on medical screening for the physical therapist and is Part 3 of a four-part series on screening. Part 3 addresses pathology in the adult portion of the lifespan. Part 1 is recommended prior to part 3.

Editor's Note: Regarding Pennsylvania credits, this course is approved by the PA State Board of Physical Therapy for 2 hours of Direct Access CE credit.

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