Overcoming Chemo Brain The Benefits of Exercise for Cognitive Health

By Dr. David Samadi

Cancer patients often refer to a phenomenon called ‘chemo brain’ in a somewhat humorous way, acknowledging the cognitive challenges that accompany chemotherapy. Managing cancer treatment can be both physically demanding and mentally exhausting—many patients undergoing chemotherapy experience a mental fog that affects their cognitive functioning. Symptoms like difficulty concentrating, forgetting dates, names, or phone numbers, mild forgetfulness, difficulty multitasking, or struggling to find the right words are common signs of chemo brain that patients and their loved ones may observe.

Chemo brain is prevalent, affecting up to 75% of individuals undergoing cancer treatment. Interestingly, this cognitive impairment is not exclusive to those receiving chemotherapy; patients with cancer who do not undergo chemotherapy can also experience changes in their mental acuity. While it’s logical to attribute chemo brain to the harsh effects of chemotherapy, stress, anxiety, and depression—common reactions to a cancer diagnosis—can also contribute to this condition.

The encouraging news is that, although chemo brain can be frustrating, it is usually temporary. For some patients, however, it may persist for a while even after completing active cancer treatments.

Ways to Manage Chemo Brain with Exercise

All of us can reap significant health benefits from being physically active But, patients undergoing cancer treatments, especially chemotherapy, can particulalry have an advantage to thier health and well-being. Exercise can significantly improve mood by releasing endorphins, the ‘feel-good’ hormones. Adopting a lifestyle incorporating exercise can provide additional bonuses for reducing anxiety and depression, improving sleep quality, decreasing fatigue, and quality-of-life factors. 

Exercise is also known to enhance brain function. Movement, in general, stimulates circulation, thus increasing blood flow to the brain. This stimulates nerve cells and pathways, helping to maintain cognitive functions. Many oncologists recommend exercise as a part of cancer treatment. Activities such as brisk walks outdoors, walking on a treadmill, cycling, hiking, or even doing laps around the house are all beneficial movements that help prevent cognitive problems associated with chemo brain.

Research on Exercise and Cognitive Function

Research has found, and endorses exercise positive effects exercise cognitive function during cancer treatment. A study involving both women and men with breast cancer found that those who adhered to the minimum national physical activity guidelines before and during chemotherapy exhibited better cognitive function immediately and six months after chemotherapy compared to those who did not meet the guidelines. This highlights the critical role of physical activity throughout life, particularly during challenging times such as cancer treatment.

Benefits of Physical Activity for Cancer Patients

Engaging in physical activity before and during cancer treatment can offer numerous benefits for patients, both physically and mentally:

  • Reduces fatigue
  • It helps alleviate anxiety and depression
  • Improves physical functioning
  • Reduces risk of other cancers 

All cancer patients should consult their healthcare providers before starting an exercise routine. Medical teams can recommend suitable activities based on each patient’s physical abilities. Even for those who are wheelchair-bound, simple chair exercises can be beneficial.

Recommended Physical Activity Levels

As per the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans set forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the recommendation for adults is to engage in the following activities to attain significant health benefits and mitigate the risk of chronic diseases, including cancer:

  • 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or an equivalent combination each week.
  • Muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week.
  • Balance training and flexibility activities as often as possible

In conclusion

By considering these recommendations, cancer patients may be able to effectively address the cognitive effects of treatment, empower individuals to improve their overall well-being, and enhance their quality of life.


Dr. David Samadi is the Director of Men’s Health and Urologic Oncology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island. He’s a renowned and highly successful board certified Urologic Oncologist Expert and Robotic Surgeon in New York City, regarded as one of the leading prostate surgeons in the U.S., with a vast expertise in prostate cancer treatment and Robotic-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy.  Dr. Samadi is a medical contributor to NewsMax TV and is also the author of The Ultimate MANual, Dr. Samadi’s Guide to Men’s Health and Wellness, available online both on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Visit Dr. Samadi’s websites at robotic oncology and prostate cancer 911. 

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