How active should I be?

How much activity is recommended?

There are international guidelines for physical activity and cancer. They were developed by the American College of Sports Medicine. They are supported by the National Cancer Institute and the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science.They advise that:

  • physical activity is safe during and after cancer treatment
  • you should try to avoid being inactive
  • you should try to get back to your normal activities as soon as possible after treatment.

If possible, slowly build up to the recommended physical activity levels. These are listed below.

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 (DoH) 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.

We explain these in more detail in our section on what type of activitiesyou should do. 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 three 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 type of activities you could do. The 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 DoH also recommendations 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. 
  • 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 for adults
Physical activity guide for adults

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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.

During your treatment, your energy levels will change from day to day. The main goal is for you to try to spend less time sitting or lying down. If you can, you should try to balance small amounts of light or moderate exercise with periods of rest. 

Choose activities you enjoy and set some realistic goals for yourself. If you feel very tired the day after activity, you may be trying to do too much, too soon. Over time, you will be able to increase the amount you do.

After treatment ends, increase your activity slowly. If your treatment means you will stay on medicines for some years, it is still possible for you to be physically active. Talk to your specialist nurse or GP about being referred to a physiotherapist or cancer exercise specialist. You can also call our Macmillan cancer information specialists for more information.

If you can, try to slowly increase the amount you do to the amount of activity recommended by the Department of Health as shown above.

We have more information on how to get started with physical activity and where to get help from professionals such as physiotherapists.

Back to Keeping active

Health walks

Walking is one of the most popular forms of activity and a great way to keep healthy. We work with health walk programmes all over the UK.

Getting started

It’s 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.