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 or haven’t exercised for a while, 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. Walking, dancing, yoga, running, cycling are some of the many activities that will help you become fitter and healthier. You’ll find that you have more energy and you’ll feel better.

Why be more active?

When you are living with or after cancer becoming more active can help you make a positive change to your life. We can all benefit from being physically active. It helps reduce the risk of health problems, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and is recommended as a treatment for these conditions. There’s also evidence that physical activity can benefit people affected by cancer.

Physical activity is any movement using your muscles that helps improve your fitness, health and wellbeing.

At first you might feel nervous about building up your activity levels, especially if you haven’t been active for a while. You may be worried that you’re too tired or you may not know where to begin.

Even a little physical activity is better than none. It can help you feel less stressed and generally healthier. It can also help you to feel more in control because you are doing something for yourself.

During treatment, doctors and nurses usually advise you to try to limit the time you spend sitting or lying down. They may encourage you to take some gentle activity such as going for short walks. Not being active can make you feel more tired and lose cardiorespiratory fitness and muscle strength. Cardiorespiratory fitness is how well your heart and lungs work to deliver oxygen to muscles over longer periods of time.

After treatment, being physically active can help you to cope with and recover from some side effects.

Being active can range from simple daily activities such as, housework, gardening and walking to the shops to more energetic activities such as running, cycling, dancing or a gym based exercise programme.

How much and what you choose to do will depend on where you are with your treatment, your preferences and level of fitness.

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

Reducing treatment side effects through being active

You may be coping with side effects during cancer treatment and for a while after it’s finished. Occasionally some side effects are permanent, and some even develop years after treatment (late effects).

Regular physical activity may help you to manage some on-going side effects or reduce the risk of certain late side effects.

Reduce tiredness

Feeling as if you have no energy (fatigue) is a very common treatment side effect. It can sometimes last for months after treatment. Being more active can help you to manage fatigue. Even a small increase in activity can help to improve your energy levels.

For most people, taking short walks, preferably every day, is a good way to be active. 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 such as ‘sit to stand’, yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong can also be helpful when your energy levels are low.

Manage stress, anxiety, low mood or depression

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 – by joining a group or going with friends or family – can really help. So can being active outdoors, in a green environment such as a park. You could try gardening or joining a walking group. Yoga is another activity that can relax you and reduce stress.

Improve bone health

Hormonal therapies for breast and prostate cancer, and having an early menopause due to chemotherapy can increase the risk of bone thinning (osteoporosis). Weight-bearing exercises such as walking, dancing or resistance training, help keep our bones strong. If you have osteoporosis, get advice on exercise from your physiotherapist, doctor, nurse or exercise specialist. We have more information about bone problems.

Improve heart health

Some treatments may slightly increase the risk of heart problems in the future. These include radiotherapy that’s given close to the heart and certain chemotherapy or the targeted therapy drug trastuzumab (Herceptin®). Aerobic activities may help to protect your heart and reduce the risk of late effects developing. Brisk walking, running, skipping, cycling, dancing and swimming are all aerobic activities.

Build muscle strength

You may lose muscle bulk and strength during and after treatment, when your muscles aren’t being used as much as usual. It’s also a side effect of hormone therapy for prostate cancer and steroids. Strength training, such as climbing stairs, moving from sitting to standing and resistance training using light weights will help increase your muscle strength.

Keeping to a healthy weight

It’s not uncommon to gain weight during treatment as you’re less active than usual. Hormonal therapy drugs and steroids, which are sometimes given with chemotherapy, can also cause weight gain.

Keeping to a healthy weight helps to reduce the risk of getting other health problems, and problems with your joints.

Being very overweight increases the risk of some cancers, particularly breast, womb and bowel cancer. So being active and keeping to a healthy weight can reduce the risk of getting another new (primary) cancer. It may also reduce the risk of certain cancers coming back. Our information about Weight management after cancer treatment may also be useful.

Sleep better

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

Prevent or control constipation

Certain chemotherapy drugs can cause constipation. Even a short walk each day, in combination with plenty of fluids and a high-fibre diet (unless your doctor advises against it) can make a difference.

Relieve pain and improve range of movement

Some types of surgery or certain chemotherapy drugs can damage to the nerves. This can sometimes make certain movements painful.

Some hormonal therapies may also cause painful joints. If you’ve been inactive for a while, this can add to any problems with pain and movement.

Regular physical activity helps ease pain in your joints by building your muscle strength and improving your flexibility. Joints that have a full range of movement are less likely to be sore. If you have sore joints, swimming and cycling are good because they put little strain on the joints.

Benefits of being active after treatment

Being physically active after treatment can be a positive step in helping you recover. It can help you to manage some side effects and may lower the risk of some late treatment side effects. It lowers your risk of getting other health problems. There’s also some evidence that it may help reduce the risk of certain cancers coming back.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) produce guidelines supported by the National Cancer Institute in America. Its advice is:

  • Avoid being inactive.
  • Physical activity is safe during and after cancer treatment.
  • Get back to your normal day-to-day activities as soon as possible after treatment.
  • Build up to the recommended physical activity levels gradually.

Other health problems

Regular physical activity can also reduce your risk of developing other health problems, such as:

  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • kidney disease
  • type 2 diabetes and
  • stroke.

It may also lower your risk of getting a new cancer.

Reducing the risk of the cancer coming back

There’s some emerging evidence to show that being active at the recommended levels and keeping to  a healthy weight can reduce the risk of certain cancers coming back or progressing.

A review showed that women with breast cancer who walked at an average pace for 3–5 hours a week had a reduced risk of the cancer coming back. Studies have also shown that walking at an average pace for 3–6 hours a week reduced the risk of bowel cancer coming back. Another study showed that walking briskly for at least three hours a week may reduce the risk of early prostate cancer progressing.

Research in this area is still new and limited to certain cancers. We need more evidence before we can say exactly how much exercise is needed to get the benefits, and exactly how it may protect against a recurrence of cancer. But so far, the signs are that with certain cancers, being active can make a difference.

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.