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Cancer and its treatments can cause physical changes, and dealing with these is often stressful. Being more physically active can help you cope with and recover from some of these changes.
An overview of how physical activity can help during and after cancer treatment, with stories from people with cancer. The information in this video was correct as of 1 December 2011.
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When you’re living with or after cancer, physical activity can help you make a positive change to your life. You may be a little nervous about building up your activity levels, particularly if it’s for the first time or if you haven’t been very active for a while. You may feel too tired or just not know where to begin.
There are many ways you can become more active. Any amount of physical activity is better than none at all. If you have or have had cancer, being physically active is safe and has lots of benefits. Knowing about these can give you the motivation to get started and keep going. Being active can also help you feel that you’re doing something positive for yourself.
Physical activity varies, from day-to-day activities such as walking or gardening, to more structured exercise programmes that you might find in a gym. How much and what type of activities you choose to do will depend on your preferences, your situation and level of fitness. But even the smallest increase in your physical activity can improve your quality of life
Doctors used to advise people to rest as much as possible during treatment, but this has changed. We now know that too much rest results in loss of muscle strength and leaves you with low energy levels.
Being active during and after treatment can:
During treatment, you’ll be the best judge of how much activity you can manage, whether that’s trying to reduce the amount of time you spend resting, or starting with going for a walk. Ask your cancer specialist about what’s okay for you and your level of fitness. Our section on Being safe| has more information.
It’s not uncommon to struggle with side effects during cancer treatment and for a while after it’s finished. Occasionally some side effects are permanent, and some even develop years after treatment (late effects). Regular physical activity can help manage or prevent some side effects. For example, it may help you:
Feeling so tired that you have no energy at all (fatigue) can sometimes last for months or longer after treatment. Light to moderate activity can improve your energy levels. Gradually build up the amount you do, starting at a pace that works for you. Doing too much too soon may make you more tired. Short walks are good for most people. Some people find activities like yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong| helpful when their energy levels are low.
These are common problems during and after treatment, but physical activity can help manage them. Physical activity helps our bodies release chemicals (endorphins) that lift our mood and lower stress hormones.
Being active with other people – like joining a group or going with friends or family – can really help, as can being active outdoors in a green environment, like a park. You could also try gardening or joining a walking group.
Hormonal therapies for breast and prostate cancer, and having an early menopause due to chemotherapy can increase the risk of bone thinning (osteoporosis). Weight-bearing exercises such as walking, dancing or resistance training, help keep our bones strong. If you have osteoporosis, get advice on the right exercises from an appropriate professional like your physiotherapist, doctor, nurse or exercise specialist. We have more information about bone problems.| You might also be interested in ordering our booklet, Bone Health|.
Some chemotherapy drugs, such as doxorubicin and epirubicin, may increase the risk of heart problems in the future. Radiotherapy given to the area close to the heart may also affect it. Exercising regularly can help improve your heart health and reduce the risk of these problems developing. Try an aerobic exercise| that you think you’ll enjoy and gradually build up the amount you do.
Loss of muscle strength is a common problem during and after treatment, when your muscles aren’t being used as much as usual. It’s also a side effect of taking steroids and is linked with getting older and long periods of bed rest. Strength training helps build your muscle strength|.
Steroids (sometimes given with chemotherapy) can lead to weight gain, as can being less active than usual. Keeping to a healthy weight helps improve your health generally and can reduce the risk of getting other health problems. Being very overweight (obese) increases the risk of some cancers, particularly breast, womb and bowel cancer. So being active may also reduce the risk of getting another new (primary) cancer. Keeping to a healthy weight may also reduce the risk of certain cancers coming back.
Our information about Weight management after cancer treatment| may also be useful.
Any regular physical activity helps you sleep better by lowering your stress hormones. You’ll feel less stressed and will sleep better because you’re more tired.
It’s not unusual to lose your appetite with some cancer treatments. Just taking regular short walks each day can help improve it.
Certain chemotherapy drugs can cause constipation. Even a short walk each day, in combination with a high-fibre diet, can make a difference.
Some types of surgery or certain chemotherapy drugs can cause damage to the nerves|. Certain hormonal therapies may also cause pain in the joints. If you’ve been inactive for a while, this can add to any problems with pain and movement. Regular physical activity helps ease pain in your joints by building your muscle strength and improving your flexibility. Joints that can use their full range of movement are less likely to be sore. Endorphins (chemicals released through exercise) can help prevent pain signals from reaching the brain.
Being physically active after treatment can be a positive step in helping you recover. It helps you manage some treatment side effects and also lower your risk of getting other health problems. There’s also some evidence that it may help reduce the risk of certain cancers coming back.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recently produced guidelines published by the National Cancer Institute in America. They say it’s important to avoid being inactive and that physical activity is safe during and after cancer treatment. The guidelines recommend getting back to normal day-to-day activities as soon as possible after treatment, and gradually building up to the recommended physical activity levels|.
Regular physical activity can also reduce your risk of developing other health problems, such as:
It may also lower your risk of getting a new cancer.
There’s some evidence to show that being active at the recommended levels and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of some cancers progressing or coming back.
An American study showed that women with breast cancer who walked at an average pace for 3–5 hours a week had a reduced risk of the cancer coming back. Studies have also shown that walking at an average pace for 3–6 hours a week reduced the risk of bowel cancer coming back. Another study also showed that walking briskly for at least three hours a week may reduce the risk of early prostate cancer developing.
This research is relatively new, and we need more evidence before we can say that this is conclusive. However, there are good indicators that being more active can make a difference.
Content last reviewed: 1 July 2011
Next planned review: 2013
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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