Different ways of being active

If possible, try to do a mix of activities that improve your aerobic fitness, balance, strength and flexibility:

  • Aerobic exercises – walking, gardening, dancing, running and jogging, cycling or swimming – work your heart and lungs.
  • Muscular strength exercises – lifting small weights or ‘sit to stand’ exercises that you can do at home – help strengthen muscles, bones and joints.
  • Flexibility exercises – stretches, yoga, tai chi and qi gong – help prevent injuries and strains.
  • Balance exercises – yoga, tai chi, pilates and qi gong – help increase balance and strength.

If you have not been active for a long time, you should increase your activity slowly. Try to do a little more activity each week.

What types of activity should I do?

If possible, try to do a mix of activities that improve your aerobic fitness, balance, strength and flexibility. Becoming active for the first time or returning to activity during or after cancer is not always easy. If you are going through treatment, you may find it useful to plan your activity around this. Or if you usually feel very tired (fatigued) at a certain time of day, avoid planning activity for this time.

Think about what you are most interested in doing and what you would enjoy the most. You could make a list of the different activities you and your family and friends could try. There is not a single activity that is best for everyone. The important thing is to choose something that fits in with your life.

Fatigue was a big thing for me, but just walking around the garden or something small like that helped me feel good. Exercise helped my recovery so much.

Ellis


Exercise intensity

If you have not been active for a long time, you should increase your activity slowly. Try to do a little more activity each week. 

This is how it feels to be active at different intensities (how much energy you use):

  • Light intensity – You are breathing and talking easily and it doesn’t feel like there is a lot of effort involved.
  • Moderate intensity – Your breathing is quicker and deeper, but you are able to talk. Your body warms up, your face has a healthy glow and your heart is beating faster than normal but not racing.
  • Vigorous or high intensity – You are breathing very hard, so you can’t carry on a conversation. Your heartbeat feels fast.

When you are comfortable doing an activity for longer, you can think about increasing the intensity from light to moderate, and then to vigorous. For example, you could walk the same distance but in a shorter time and at a faster pace.

Exercise can really help. But I did too much, which ended up causing even more swelling. I had to find the right level of intensity.

Barny


Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise works your heart and lungs. It uses large muscle groups, such as the ones in the legs. It does this repetitively for a period of time. It makes you breathe harder and raises your heart rate, so your heart works harder to pump blood through the body. It is particularly good for your heart and cardiovascular system. The cardiovascular system includes the heart and the blood vessels that carry blood around the body.

These are common aerobic exercises:

  • Daily activities – Taking the stairs, doing housework such as vacuuming or hanging out washing, gardening, walking the dog and playing games with children are all considered moderate-intensity activities.
  • Walking briskly – This is one of the simplest and most effective aerobic exercises. It is also a weight-bearing exercise, because your feet and legs support your body’s weight. This means it is good for strengthening the bones (the spine, pelvis and leg bones). Walking can be a moderate-intensity activity. All you need are comfortable walking shoes.
  • Gardening – This is a way of enjoying some physical activity outdoors. Heavier gardening such as digging or pushing a lawn mower can count as moderate activity. Spending time in the garden might also help with stress or anxiety. If you do not have access to a garden, there are schemes across the UK where you can garden, grow fruit and vegetables or take part in nature conservation. Green Gyms is one of these schemes. Visit your local authority’s website to see which schemes might be available near you.
  • Running and jogging – These can be considered as vigorous activity. They are great for your heart and lungs and they are weight-bearing exercises. These activities are high impact and may put stress on your spine and joints. If you have bone or joint problems, you may want to choose something less weight-bearing. This could include jogging on a trampoline, cycling or swimming.
  • Cycling and swimming – These can be considered as moderate or vigorous activity. They are good for your heart and lungs. They strengthen your muscles but put very little strain on your joints, because they are weight-supported exercises. They can be good activities if you have bone or joint pain. Swimming is particularly beneficial if you have lymphoedema. Swimming is not recommended if you have irritated skin due to radiotherapy. It is also not recommended if you are having chemotherapy and you have a PICC line or central line.
  • Group exercise and other sports – There are other aerobic exercise options you could do with a friend or a group. These include aerobics classes, dancing, golf, tennis, badminton and bowling.

I get out of breath some days. The key is to listen to your body. I can’t run, bike or swim any great distance, but I’m building up. Everyone’s different.

Lee


Muscular strength exercises

These exercises involve making your muscles work harder than usual, against some form of resistance. They strengthen muscles, bones and joints. Having good muscle strength makes it easier to do day-to-day things for yourself. It can help you be more independent. This is a good activity if you have, or are at risk of, bone problems

If you have lymphoedema, you can still include strengthening exercises. You should start slowly with light weights. You should slowly build up the number and intensity of the strengthening exercises. Try to keep the movement flowing as much as possible. It is important to avoid any injuries or muscle strains, as this could make lymphoedema worse. If you have a compression garment, you usually need to wear it when you exercise. Talk to your lymphoedema specialist nurse if you are unsure about resistance-strengthening exercises.  

The exercises can be done with body weights, hand weights, machines or elastic bands. You can do simple exercises at home, such as lifting cans of food or bottles of water. We have more examples of the types of exercise you can do at home. 

There are other simple resistance exercises you can do at home, such as moving from sitting to standing using a chair, or press-ups against a wall. The NHS website shows you how to do these and other simple exercises safely at home. These exercises are aimed at older people, but they are appropriate for people of any age who want to start moving during treatment or while they are living with cancer.

Some exercise classes focus specifically on strengthening exercises you do while sitting down. These are called seated exercise classes. Ask your GP or nurse if there are any in your local area, or call your local leisure centre to see what is available.

If you are doing a gym-based or circuit programme with resistance machines and free weights, make sure it is run by a qualified exercise specialist who has knowledge of cancer and its treatment.

I am limited in what exercise I can do, but I still try to do little bits of movement. Especially weight-bearing exercise because that will keep the bones strengthened.

Christine


Flexibility exercises

Working on increasing the flexibility of your joints and muscles helps you stay flexible. It can help prevent injuries and strains. Simple stretching exercises are a good way to start, especially if you have been unwell or have recently had surgery. The NHS website has some stretches you can do. It is best to do these stretches as a daily routine. They will only take you a few minutes.

Yoga, tai chi and qi gong are also good to help improve flexibility. They use breathing techniques combined with body movements. They can also help you relax and reduce stress.

It is the mental attitude that comes from being fit and healthy that matters to me.

Jonathan


Balance exercises

Yoga, tai chi, pilates, body balance and qi gong help increase balance and strength. Cycling (but not on an exercise bike) and dancing are also good for your balance.

You can download free booklets about simple balance exercises you can do at home. These are good for building strength, whatever your age.

The table on the next pages lists different activities and how they help improve your stamina, strength, flexibility and balance. It has been adapted from the British Heart Foundation’s booklet Get Active, Stay Active.

Activity

Aerobic/stamina

Strength

Flexibility

Balance

Aerobic classes at a gym

X

X


X

Badminton

X


X

X

Brisk walking/walking uphill

X

X



Climbing stairs

X

X


X

Cycling

X

X


X

Dancing

X

X

X

X

DIY


X

X

X

Football

X

X


X

Mowing the lawn

X


X


Pilates/tai chi/yoga/ qi gong


X

X

X

Vacuuming

X


X


Washing the car

X

X



Water aerobics

X

X


X

Yoga


X

X

X

British Heart Foundation logo.

Back to Keeping active

Health walks

Walking is one of the most popular forms of activity and a great way to keep active. Health walk programmes are available across the UK.

Tips for getting started

It is important to take care of yourself when you start to be more active. Your healthcare team can give you advice.

Activities near you

There are lots of organisations and websites that can help you find out what activities are available near you.

Tools to help you move more

Taking part in physical activity during and after cancer treatment can play a huge part in enabling you to take back control. We have a range of tools to help you be more active.

Apps to help you

There are a number of digital applications that can help you on your journey to becoming more active.