What is physical activity?

Being physically active can mean doing simple daily activities. This includes:

  • housework, for example vacuuming
  • gardening
  • walking to the shops
  • walking up the stairs instead of taking the lift.

Or it can mean more energetic activities, such as:

  • dancing
  • running
  • cycling
  • digging in the garden.

What type of physical activity you do will depend on what stage you are at with cancer treatment. It will also depend on which activities you enjoy. Your level of fitness will also affect the amount of activity that you can do.

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How does physical activity affect cancer?

When you are living with cancer, becoming more active can be a positive change to make in your life. Cancer and its treatment can make things feel very uncertain. Doing something for yourself like becoming more active can help you feel more in control.

Research suggests that along with having a healthy diet, being physically active can help reduce the risk of some cancer types coming back. It can also help reduce the risk of developing other health problems, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

What are the benefits of physical activity for cancer?

There are health benefits of being active at every stage of cancer or treatment. But there can be extra or specific benefits, depending on which stage you are at.

For all stages of treatment, it is important to make sure the physical activity you are planning is safe to do in your situation.

Most types of light physical activity, such as walking, are safe.

Being active before treatment

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

Being active before treatment starts may mean you have fewer side effects, or that they are less severe. It can also help you feel more in control and mentally prepared for treatment. It may help you recover more quickly.

Some people have to start treatment straight away, so there is no time to become more active before treatment. If this happens, you can talk to your cancer doctor or specialist nurse about plans to get active during or after treatment. They may refer you to a physiotherapist for advice.

Being active during treatment

Doing exercise during cancer treatment is generally safe. But there may be activities you need to avoid or be careful with. It is important not to suddenly start intense exercise that you are not used to. We have more information on exercising safely.

Regular activity will reduce the risk of blood clots (thrombosis). These are more common after cancer.

Some physical activity during treatment will help you maintain your fitness, strength and bone health.

If you are not sure about being active during treatment, talk to your specialist nurse, physiotherapist or GP. Some hospitals and community services have cancer exercise specialists or classes that you can be referred to.

We have more information on being physically active during treatment.

Being active after treatment

Doing exercise after cancer treatment may help reduce the risk of certain cancers coming back. It may also help you manage and reduce the risk of:

We have more information on being physically active after treatment and keeping to a healthy weight.

How much activity is recommended?

International guidelines for physical activity and cancer advise that physical activity is safe during and after cancer treatment. You should try to avoid being inactive and get back to your normal activities as soon as possible after treatment.

If possible, slowly build up to the recommended levels of physical activity.

Recommendations for aerobic activity

Aerobic activity is physical activity that causes you to become breathless and find it difficult to talk. You may be sweating and feel your heart beating faster. Examples of aerobic activity include walking, running or cycling. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) also has recommendations on physical activity. It advises that healthy adults do one of the following every week:

  • At least 2½ hours (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity activity. This means activity that causes you to breathe deeper and faster, but you can still talk. Your heart may be beating faster but not racing.
  • At least 1¼ hours (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. This means activity that causes you to breathe very hard, so that you cannot have a conversation. Your heart will be beating very fast.
  • At least 1¼ hours (75 minutes) using a combination of both moderate and vigorous aerobic activity.

If you are over 65, the recommendations are the same.

To do 150 minutes of activity in a week, you could do 30 minutes of activity on 5 days of the week. On the 5 days of physical activity, you could do 3 10-minute sessions during the day.

It is important to build this up slowly and at a pace that is comfortable for you. We have some suggestions for the types of activity you could do.

The physical activity guidelines recommend that if you have not been active for a while, a little activity is better than no activity at all. This includes doing some very light activity. Light activity means you can talk and breathe easily at the same time.

Other recommendations

As well as doing a certain amount of activity, the DHSC also recommends that you try to do the following:

  • Activities that improve muscle strength on at least 2 days of the week.
  • If you are at risk of falling, try to do activities that improve co-ordination and balance on at least 2 days of the week.

It can also help to do stretching exercises before and after each session.

For some people, activities that improve muscle strength and balance may be more helpful than aerobic activity. It depends on the stage of cancer or treatment.

A physiotherapist or cancer exercise specialist may be able to give you some advice about which activities are most suitable for you.

Being active every day

If you are doing exercise sessions run by a professional, it is still important to make physical activity part of your daily routine. You could:

  • reduce the amount of time you spend sitting or lying down
  • choose the stairs rather than the lift when possible, even if it is only part of the way up
  • stand up and stretch your legs every 30 minutes if you work sitting down
  • walk or cycle shorter distances rather than use the car
  • get off the bus a stop earlier or later and walk the extra distance.

The infographic below shows the amount of physical activity recommended for adults. It also suggests ways of doing it.

 

Physical activity guide 

 

 

How much activity is right for you?

Which type of activity you do, and how much you do, will depend on the following:

  • How fit you were before you were diagnosed. If you were active before, you may have to build back up to the same level slowly. But you may need to build to a new level that is suitable for your situation. Some people may be able to continue as they did before their diagnosis.
  • The type of cancer and treatments you had or are still having. This may affect what is safe for you to do and what you can manage.
  • Any symptoms or treatment side effects you have. This includes any emotional effects of cancer.
  • Any long-term conditions you have, such as heart problems.
  • Whether you have long-term effects of the cancer or its treatment. This might include bone problems, lymphoedema, peripheral neuropathy, heart problems, bladder changes or a stoma.

We have more information on types of physical activity and being physically active during treatment.

Who can help you get started?

If you feel worried about starting physical activity, it can help to get advice. This might be if you have not been very active before or for a long time. The following professionals and organisations can help you:

  • Your doctor or nurse

    It is best to talk to your cancer doctor, specialist nurse or GP before you start exercising. They can give you advice on whether it is safe for you to exercise. They can also give you information about any precautions you need to take.

    Some GPs, cancer treatment centres and support groups have exercise referral schemes. These can refer you to a cancer exercise specialist. There may also be an exercise programme that is part of some research at your cancer treatment centre. Ask your cancer doctor or nurse for more information.

  • A physiotherapist or cancer exercise specialist

    Your GP, cancer doctor or specialist nurse can refer you to a physiotherapist. Some areas may have qualified cancer exercise specialists who you can be referred to. A cancer exercise specialist is a fitness instructor who is qualified to help people with cancer to exercise safely. They might work in a gym or local leisure centre. They might offer personal training. Some cancer exercise specialists may offer classes in cancer information centres. You may also be able to refer yourself to a physiotherapist.

    A cancer exercise specialist or physiotherapist can help you decide on an exercise programme that is safe and effective for you. They can help you improve your:

    • energy
    • strength
    • flexibility
    • co-ordination
    • balance.

    They can also help you manage the side effects or late effects of treatment.

    If you have more specific needs, they may be able to arrange a rehabilitation programme for you.

  • An occupational therapist

    Your GP or cancer doctor may refer you to an occupational therapist. They can advise you on how to pace yourself and manage tiredness.

    They can also suggest changes to your home that will make it safer and help you be more independent. Doing simple things for yourself in the home is a way of increasing your physical activity. If things are easier at home, you will also have more time and energy to do activities you like, such as walking or gardening.

  • Exercise referral schemes

    Many people prefer to exercise in a group. If you think this might help, or you feel you need to exercise with an expert, you may want to join an exercise referral scheme. They are mostly held at local community centres, healthy living centres, leisure centres and libraries. Ask your GP, cancer doctor, physiotherapist or specialist nurse about any in your area. Not all areas have an exercise referral scheme, or the schemes may only be available for people with certain medical conditions.

    Specially trained exercise professionals manage many of these schemes. But it is a good idea to check whether they have been trained to work with people who have or have had cancer.

    Some areas also have schemes in care homes, hospices and day centres. They often include activities such as:

    • chair-based exercises
    • walking
    • dancing
    • Pilates
    • gentle exercise to music
    • circuits
    • tai chi
    • yoga.

     

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our physical activity and cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Schmitz K, Courneya K, Matthews C, et al. American College of Sports Medicine roundtable on exercise guidelines for cancer survivors. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 2010. 42.

    Thomas R et al. Physical activity after cancer: a review of international literature. British Journal of Medical Practitioners. 2014.. 

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Anna Campbell.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.