Tips for exercising when you have cancer

Thursday 31 May 2018

If you have cancer, there may be days when the very thought of exercise seems impossible.

You may have exercised regularly in the past, or you may be not have been physically active before your diagnosis.

Even if you are new to exercise, research shows us that when you are well enough to do it, it has a useful role to play in recovery and health maintenance.

Benefits of exercise and cancer

If you are unable to keep active or moving, your muscles tend to become weaker and you can start to have balance and mobility problems. Exercising these muscles helps to keep them strong.

Physical activity also keeps bowels working well, lifts your mood, lessens nausea and can help combat fatigue.

Through exercise, you can boost your self-esteem and maintain social interactions with others. An added bonus is that you may sleep better, and it can help control your weight.

What is the difference between exercise and physical activity?

Exercise tends to be intentionally focused on improving or maintaining a level of physical fitness, such as muscle strength or heart health.

Physical activity is any movement of the body that uses energy.

After a cancer diagnosis and treatment, activities that you might not have considered to be physical before, such as walking to the shop or doing the dishes, could be beneficial forms of exercise for you.

Tips for keeping physically active when you have cancer

  1. Ask your doctor or specialist nurse. Depending on the type of cancer you have and where you are in your treatment, your healthcare team will be able to advise you on exercise you could try and any you should avoid.

  2. Start small. If you are new to exercising or if your energy levels have been affected by your cancer or treatment, start with something that is manageable for you. That might be a short walk or a few minutes of stretching.

  3. Build up gradually. If you are feeling well enough, you can aim to build up to 2.5 hours of moderate, aerobic exercise a week, or 5 x 30 minutes sessions.

  4. Find something you enjoy. The more you enjoy it, the more likely you are to do it, and the more benefits you will gain from it! This could mean walking, gardening, gentle cycling, swimming, dancing, yoga... you name it. Remember to check with your doctor first.

  5. If in doubt, start with walking. This is a particularly good starting point if you haven't exercised much in the past. You might want to ask someone to come with you, perhaps to walk the dog, go to the shop or a walk around the block.

  6. Exercise is relative. Something you had never even considered to be exercise, like gardening, baking or seated stretching, might be a suitable form of physical activity for you right now. The key is to find something that works for you.

  7. Adapt to how you feel and the treatment you are on. If you are normally physically active, you may need to reduce the time and intensity of exercise during treatment, and that can be frustrating. Take courage from listening to your body and doctor, and knowing that you are doing the best thing for you right now.

  8. Exercise with other people. You might get a mental boost from exercising with a friend, in a group or at a class. Be sure to check with your medical team first, especially if your immunity might be at a lower level as a result of your treatment.

  9. Speak to a cancer support specialist at your nearest Maggie's centre and ask about our programme of support and exercise sessions. Most centres offer walking, tai chi, yoga and other gentle exercise groups for you to try.

  10. If you don't feel well enough to exercise at the moment, there are other ways you can gain some of the benefits of exercise for people with cancer. Explore our cancer support information to find out more.

How Maggie's can help

Every Maggie's centre offers a range of physical activity sessions, including walking, Nordic walking, gentle exercise, yoga, tai-chi and gardening.

The sessions are free and run by qualified instructors. One of our cancer support specialists will help you to work out which is the right activity for you.

You don't need an appoint to speak to a cancer support specialist. Find your nearest Maggie's centre and just come in.

Blog created May 2018 by Cancer Support Specialist, Sue Long. Updated in December 2023

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