Cancer and exercise

Thursday 31 May 2018

If you have cancer, there may be days when the very thought of exercise seems impossible. Whilst some of you may already have taken part in a regular exercise regime - running, the gym, dance classes etc - there will be others who have led a more sedentary life pre-cancer. Traditionally, when anyone was ill, then bed rest was encouraged - whereas now research shows us that exercise has a useful role to play in recovery and health maintenance.

Benefits of exercise

If you’re not able to keep active (no matter how reduced that may be), your muscles tend to become weaker, and you may have balance and mobility problems. 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 interaction with others. An added bonus is that you may sleep better, and help control your weight.

Suggestions for keeping physically active

It doesn’t seem that you have to go mad on the exercise either. Guidelines suggest at least 2.5 hours of moderately intense exercise a week - but if you’re having treatment, you may find even that sounds daunting.  Short spells, building up slowly are a bit kinder to you if you exhausted from chemo and/or radiotherapy. Obviously, if you’ve just had surgery, you’ll be physically limited, so it’s always as well to ask your oncology/hospital team what exercise is permitted.

Finding out what is recommended and what you can manage can be helpful. (There is a useful DVD from Macmillan Cancer Support which you can order called 'Get active - feel good’).

If you're currently on treatment - then your exercise plans may depend on the type of cancer you have, the treatment you're on, and your current energy levels. If you are someone who would normally be physically active, it can be hard realising that your strength and stamina is temporarily reduced.  You may need to reduce the time, and intensity, of exercise during treatment.

Start out slowly and build up gradually.  Physical activity can include walking the dog, gardening, gentle cycling, swimming (just check with your medical team). You can still go to the gym, although perhaps not if your immune system is at a lower level. 

People often find walking a good place to start, particularly if they haven’t exercised much in the past.   You can find out more on Walking for Health’s webpage ‘Cancer and walking’.  You can look on their web page and find the nearest walks to you. For those of you in Scotland, there is ‘Paths for all’ (Scotland)…whilst in Wales, ‘Let’s Walk Cymru’ is a similar scheme.

Many of you reading this, may be generally fit and active, and the cancer treatment has temporarily curbed your activities. This can lead to frustration and fear, as it’s a reminder that currently you’re not at your peak. People have often found being a little weaker has had a demoralising effect, and they miss the endorphin rush achieved by a good physical work out.

If you live near one of our Maggie’s Centres, why not drop in and ask about our exercise for people with cancer. Most centres offer Tai Chi, Yoga and walking programmes for you to try. Having cancer doesn’t mean exercise has to stop, but it may be easier when with others who are aiming for the same goal. You can also contact us here online, join in our forums and have a read through the blogs and conversation posts,

Warm wishes


(Updated April 2020)


Exercise guidelines for patients       Cancer Research UK

Walking for health

Walking and cancer    Walking for health website

Get Active, Feel Good  (DVD)    Macmillan Cancer Support

Physical activity and the cancer patient  - American Cancer Society


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