Physical activity

The importance of physical activity

Macmillan believes physical activity is an underrated ‘wonder drug’ and that everyone living with or supporting someone with cancer, and other long-term conditions, should be aware of its benefits. Leading a physically active lifestyle during and after cancer is linked to improvements in many of the adverse effects of cancer and its treatments [1].

An active lifestyle helps overcome fatigue, anxiety and depression, while 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].

What is Macmillan doing to help?

Macmillan wants to ensure people living with cancer are encouraged and supported to be physically active at a level that is right for them – whether that’s doing the shopping, gardening, going for a walk, or sports such as swimming, football or bowls.

We're helping you to help others

Macmillan recognises the health benefits of moving more, and has developed models and resources to help people with cancer and other long-term conditions become more physically active and support behaviour change.

Physical activity forms part of the Recovery Package – a series of key interventions that, when delivered together, can greatly improve outcomes for people living with and beyond cancer. Being active also plays a part in prehabilitation, which is integral to the rehabilitation pathway.

Early interventions shortly after diagnosis can significantly improve a person’s ability to cope with treatments, improve quality of life and reduce the length of stay in hospital.

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

Professor Jane Maher, Chief Medical Officer, Macmillan Cancer Support

How can Health and Social Care Professionals help?

You play a critical role, being in a position of trust, and well placed to recommend physical activity to the people you support. We find that most people using physical activity behaviour change services are referred by health and social care professionals.

Macmillan values your help to encourage people living with cancer to be active, especially those who are genuinely inactive or face challenges to become and remain active. We offer free online training to give you an understanding of physical activity and cancer, and how to deliver effective advice.

We have also developed evidence and insight to support and influence those commissioning or reviewing services in cancer care, and other long-term conditions, to recognise the value of physical activity.

With your help, we can promote the importance of physical activity and other elements of rehabilitation as an integral part of the patient pathway.

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.

The Physical activity for people with metastatic bone disease: Guidance for healthcare professionals [PDF] aims to give clear information on the types and amounts of physical activity that can safely be recommended to patients with metastatic bone disease.

Establishing general principles and addressing specific patients groups, the document can be used with existing guidance, including the Recovery Package. The guidance has been designed for all healthcare professionals who have contact with people living with cancer.

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 health and social care 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 physical activity resources to help professionals make the case for evidence-based services in their areas, and to support people living with cancer to become and stay active. This includes our award-winning Move More Guide, which supports those setting up and running physical activity services.

View our physical activity resources.



emptyThomas 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.



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