Physical activity

The importance of physical activity

Leading a physically active lifestyle both during and after cancer is linked to an improvement in many of the adverse effects of cancer and its treatments[1]. An active lifestyle helps overcome fatigue, anxiety and depression, whilst protecting the heart, lungs and bones. In some cases, being physically active has been shown to slow disease progression, improve survival and reduce the chance of recurrence[1]. Despite these benefits, only 23% of people living with cancer are active to recommended levels[2].


Our 60 minute online webex training on the importance of physical activity for people living with cancer runs once a month and will enable you to raise awareness of the importance of physical activity and signpost people to further support.

Our concise review of the evidence provides commissioners and health professionals with an overview of the evidence for integrating the promotion of physical activity within the cancer care pathway, also available to order from be.Macmillan.

If physical exercise were a drug, it would be hitting the headlines.

Professor Jane Maher, Chief Medical Officer, Macmillan Cancer Support

Guidelines for physical activity and people living with cancer

Although no formal physical activity guidelines exist in the UK for people living with and beyond cancer, we can be confident advising otherwise healthy cancer survivors to gradually build up to the health-related physical activity guidelines for the general population.

An extract from the American College of Sports Medicine round table consensus statement on exercise guidelines for cancer survivors supports this, ‘Exercise is safe both during and after cancer treatment. Patients are advised to avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activities as soon as possible after surgery, and during adjuvant cancer treatments. The standard age appropriate guidelines are also appropriate for cancer patients.’

Those with cancer complications or co-morbidities, which prohibit moderate-intensity exercise, should nonetheless aim to be as active as their abilities and conditions allow.

What motivates people living with cancer to become active?

People living with and beyond cancer need to know it is safe to become, and stay, active. They need to find a level that is right for them, listen to their body, start slowly, build gradually, and plan around treatment cycles and physical limitations. These messages need to come from trusted healthcare professionals. Messages should be delivered sensitively, with useful examples and information.

If you want to know more about what motivates people living with cancer to become active, look at our research findings.

Resources to help people living with cancer to ‘move more’

We have created some tools that can help your patients become more active.

The pack includes; a physical activity and cancer information leaflet, telling patients everything that they need to know about becoming more active during and after cancer. It also includes an activity diary to help plan and record activities.

In this exercise to music DVD, cancer and fitness expert Dr Anna Campbell, guides patients through three exercise plans to complete at home. The DVD is also available to view online on Macmillan’s YouTube channel.

This booklet is written for people living with or beyond cancer who want to know more about the benefits of being physically active. It includes practical advice and useful organisations.

We have 50 specialist ‘Move More’ services situated across the UK. The services follow the NICE guidance on individual behaviour change and provide tailored one-to-one support for people affected by cancer. Search our ‘in your area’ database to see if there is a ‘Move more’ service local to you.

Walking is one of the most popular forms of activity and a great way to get people affected by cancer more active. Health walk programmes across the UK offer free, short and friendly health walks close to where people live. See our health walks page for more information.

Physical activity is part of the the Recovery Package, a series of key interventions which, when delivered together, can greatly improve outcomes for people living with and beyond cancer.



Thomas RJ, Holm M, Al-Adhami A. Physical activity after cancer: An international review of the literature. BJMP. 1st ed. 2014 Mar 2;7(708):1–7.



NHS. Quality of Life of Cancer Survivors in England - Report on a pilot survey using Patient Reported Outcome Measures (PROMS). London: Crown Copyright; 2012.