Benefits of being active

Physical activity can be an important part of your recovery after cancer treatment.

During treatment, even just spending less time sitting down and taking short walks can help. Being active has many benefits and can help to:

  • reduce tiredness and some treatment side effects
  • reduce anxiety and depression
  • improve your mood and quality of life
  • strengthen your muscles, joints and bones
  • look after your heart and reduce the risk of other health problems.

Being active at recommended levels and keeping to a healthy weight may reduce the risk of certain cancers coming back.

If you are not used to exercising you may worry you’re not going to be able to keep it going. Being active doesn’t mean you have to exercise intensely. To start with it can be as simple as going for short walks, doing things around the house or gardening.

As you gradually build up your strength, you can choose an activity you enjoy.. You’ll find that you have more energy and you’ll feel better. Being active can also be helpful if you have advanced cancer. It can help to reduce symptoms, as well as giving you a confidence boost.

Why be more active?

When you are living with or after cancer, becoming more active can be a positive change to make in your life. Evidence shows that physical activity can benefit people affected by cancer in several different ways. Research suggests that being physically active, along with eating a healthy diet, can help reduce the risk of recurrence for some cancer types and increase survival. It also helps reduce the risk of developing other health problems, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Being active before, during and after treatment can:

  • reduce tiredness (fatigue)
  • improve your quality of life
  • help look after your heart
  • reduce anxiety and depression
  • help you maintain a healthy weight
  • strengthen your muscles, joints and bones
  • improve your flexibility and help keep you supple
  • increase your confidence.

At first, you might be nervous about starting and building up your activity, especially if you haven’t been active for a while. You may worry that you are too tired, don’t know how to start or don’t know what is best for you to do. You may also be concerned about injuring yourself. But even a little physical activity is better than none at all. It can help you feel less stressed and lift your spirits if you’re feeling low. It will also help you feel more in control, because you are doing something positive for yourself.

When so many things are going wrong, it feels great to do something that you can tell makes you feel better as you do it.

Ailsa


Being active before treatment

If you know you are going to have surgery, your doctor might encourage you to start some physical activity before the operation. This is to help improve your general fitness level. It can also help with your recovery after surgery.

Being active before any treatment starts can help prepare your body for treatment. This may mean you have fewer side effects, or that they are less severe. It can also help you feel better in yourself. And it may help you recover more quickly.

Some people have to start treatment straight away. But if you don’t, physical activity will help you prepare for future treatment.


Being active during treatment

Being physically active during treatment is generally very safe. You will usually know how much activity you can manage, but there may be activities you need to avoid or be careful with. Try to make steady improvements every month, as long as your treatment allows. There may be some weeks when you have to do less, such as immediately after chemotherapy. And there may be some weeks when you can do more. The important thing is not to suddenly do intense exercise you are not used to. This can cause muscle strain.

It’s best to focus on increasing the amount of activity you do in the long term. Try not to worry about any short-term setbacks. Any physical activity you can do during treatment will help you maintain your fitness.

If you are not sure what to do, ask a cancer exercise professional. You may have one available at the hospital, or your GP may be able to refer you to one in a local leisure centre. In some areas, you can get individual exercise programmes. You could also ask your cancer doctor or specialist nurse for exercise advice. Our Move More guide has lots of tips to help you get started.

What you can manage will depend on your level of fitness and the treatment you are having. You could start by trying to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting down. You could also try doing some light housework, making yourself a snack or going for a walk with family or friends. Remember to pace yourself. Try not to do too much, even on a good day.

If you already exercised before treatment, you may find you need to do it at a lower intensity during treatment. You can gradually increase it again after treatment ends.

Studies have shown that exercising during chemotherapy helped people stay active or feel better about themselves.


Reducing side effects

You may have side effects during your treatment and for some months or years after it finishes. Being more physically active may help reduce some of these.

Reduce tiredness

Feeling like you have no energy is a very common side effect of treatment. It can sometimes last for months after treatment ends. Being more active can help you manage fatigue. Even doing a little bit more activity can help improve your energy levels.

For most people, a good way to be active is to go for short walks every day, even for a few minutes to start with. Walk at a comfortable pace for you. Don’t push yourself too hard. Doing too much, too soon, may make you more tired.

Simple strength exercises can also be helpful when your energy levels are low. These exercises include ‘sit to stand’, tai chi and qi gong.

Improve your mood and reduce stress

Stress, anxiety and low mood are common problems during and after treatment. Physical activity encourages the brain to produce chemicals (endorphins) that improve mood and reduce stress.

Being active with other people can really help. You could exercise with family or friends. Or you could join a cancer rehabilitation programme and exercise with other people who understand what you are going through. It can also help to be active outdoors somewhere green, such as a park. You could try gardening or joining a walking group.

Sleep better

Being more active during the day helps you relax and sleep better at night.

Build muscle strength

You may lose muscle bulk and strength during and after treatment. This happens when your muscles aren’t being used as much as usual. It is also a side effect of hormonal therapy for prostate cancer or of steroid treatment.

Strength training will help increase your muscle strength. This includes moving from sitting to standing, climbing stairs and resistance training using light weights or bottles of water. You can gradually build this up after treatment. 

Ease joint pain and improve flexibility

If you have painful joints, regular physical activity can help ease the pain by building muscle strength and improving flexibility. Joints that can move flexibly are less likely to be sore.

If you have sore joints, weight-supported exercises are good. These include swimming and cycling. They are good because your weight is supported and there is less strain on the joints in your legs and back. Weight-supported exercises can help you avoid stiffening up. You can do them even when you’re feeling too tired to do much else.

I found taking a walk in the park on sunny days during chemo treatment made me feel so much happier and ready to take on the world again.

Namdev


Being active after treatment

Being physically active after treatment is a positive step in your recovery. It may help reduce the risk of certain cancers coming back. It may also help you manage and reduce the risk of:

  • late effects of treatment such as tiredness
  • weight gain
  • other health problems.

Physical activity and late effects

These are side effects that may develop months or years after treatment ends.

Heart health

Some treatments may slightly increase the risk of heart problems in the future. These include radiotherapy that is given close to the heart and certain chemotherapy or targeted therapy drugs.

Aerobic activities can help protect your heart and reduce the risk of late effects developing. Brisk walking, running, skipping, cycling, dancing and swimming are all aerobic activities. We have more information about heart health.

Bone health

Hormonal therapies for breast and prostate cancer can increase the risk of bone thinning (osteoporosis). Having an early menopause due to cancer treatments can also increase this risk.

Activities where you are supporting your own body weight will help keep bones strong. These are sometime called weight-bearing exercises. They include walking, dancing and resistance training.

If you have osteoporosis, get advice on exercise from your doctor, nurse, physiotherapist or exercise specialist. We have more information about bone health.

Confidence

Most people feel overwhelmed when they are told they have cancer, and have many different emotions during and after treatment. Different people have different feelings, but they may include fear, uncertainty, anxiety, isolation and depression.

Research has shown that being physically active during treatment can help improve your mood and confidence.

Keeping to a healthy weight

People often don’t expect to gain weight while they are having cancer treatment, but it can happen. There can be several reasons for this. Treatment can make you tired, so you may be less active than usual. Hormonal therapies and steroids can also cause weight gain.

Being active and eating healthily are major factors in managing your weight. Keeping to a healthy weight can help reduce the risk of:

  • joint problems
  • back problems
  • developing a new (primary) cancer – excess body fat has been linked to some bowel, breast and womb cancers.

Other health problems

After cancer treatment, some people are more at risk of developing other health problems. Being physically active can help you manage or reduce your risk of:

  • high blood pressure
  • stroke
  • type 2 diabetes
  • kidney disease
  • depression
  • anxiety.

Reducing the risk of cancer coming back

There is some emerging evidence that being physically active at the levels recommended can reduce the risk of certain cancers coming back or progressing.

Research in this area is ongoing. We need more evidence before we can say exactly how much and what specific exercise is needed to get these benefits, and exactly how it may protect against a recurrence of cancer. But so far, the signs are that for certain cancers, doing 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of physical activity a week can make a difference after treatment.

Physical activity after breast cancer treatment

Joy explains how she followed exercises that were tailored to her cancer type and gradually became more active after breast cancer treatment to help with her recovery.

About our cancer information videos

Physical activity after breast cancer treatment

Joy explains how she followed exercises that were tailored to her cancer type and gradually became more active after breast cancer treatment to help with her recovery.

About our cancer information videos


Advanced cancer and physical activity

If you have advanced cancer, being physically active has many benefits. It can help reduce symptoms such as tiredness and poor appetite. Being more active can also help with your walking, balance and confidence.

If you are struggling to do the same amount of physical activity you’re used to, you may want to reduce how much you are doing. Or if you currently don’t do any physical activity, start to slowly and gradually increase the amount you do. To begin with, try to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting or lying down during the daytime. Just moving around the house and doing easy day-to-day things will help.

You may be able to do short walks or gentle stretching exercises. You could ask your family or friends to join you.

Resistance exercises can help strengthen your muscles and bones. This helps with getting in and out of chairs or baths, going up and down stairs, and going shopping. It also helps reduce the risk of accidentally falling.

You may need to avoid some types of physical activity, for example if the cancer is in your bones or you have bone thinning. Ask your doctor or palliative care team for advice before you start. Gentle, low-impact activities include walking, swimming and cycling.

Back to Keeping active

Who can help you get active

Talk to your physiotherapist or your doctor before you start doing physical activity. They’ll point you to appropriate exercise programmes.

Tips to get you started

You may find keeping active after a cancer diagnosis challenging. There are some tips that can get you started.

Activities near you

Several organisations and websites can help you find out what activities are available near you.