Exercise and Cancer

June 15, 2022

Exercise and Cancer

Getting back into exercise following a cancer diagnosis can be a mine field, there is a lot of conflicting and misleading information out there which can make physical activity seem a bit daunting. The hope is that this post will help to bust some of the myths that surround exercises during and after cancer treatment as well as giving you some tips on how to start and maintain safe exercise practices during your recovery.

Whilst clinical treatment of cancer is improving- we are getting earlier screening and diagnosis with constantly evolving options for treatment, survivorship is increasing but rehab services and post treatment care hasn’t quite caught up which is leaving many feeling a bit lost during and after treatment. Exercise following a cancer diagnosis can reduce the relative risk of cancer specific mortality, cancer recurrence and all cause mortality.

Exercising during and post treatment has many benefits, some of which are listed in the table above.

The recommended levels of physical activity for those during and post cancer treatment include 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity physical exercise, this could include anything from a brisk walk, a gentle swim to some yoga or pilates. It is also advised that you include 2-3 sessions per week of resistance exercise. Resistance training is a form of physical activity that is designed to improve muscular fitness by exercising a muscle or a muscle group against external resistance, so you can access this type of exercise with things like resistance bands or small weights. The only caveat to this guidance is to be aware of your symptoms and side effects from treatment and modify your exercise accordingly. If you have any questions about how to modify or adapt exercise please get in touch with a physio or exercise specialist.

One concern that we hear from many of our clients following treatment is whether exercise can cause or exacerbate lymphoedema. The good news here is that the current evidence suggests that exercise does cause or worsen the condition, however it is advised that if you have lymphoedema you should exercise with a compression garment on. Once again if you are at all unsure about your limitations when it comes to this area you should consult a lymphoedema specialist.

Another area of common concern is the risk of osteoporosis, which is particularly common in hormonally driven breast and prostate cancer.   to a health condition that weakens bones, making them fragile and more likely to break – this is often caused by certain therapies and hormone treatments. The current research in this  area indicates that weight bearing exercise(standing, adding additional weight onto your exercises, being on your hands and knees) may have a protective effect in reducing bone density depletion during hormone therapy. It is also advisable to reduce high impact activities such as running and jumping in this time to minimise the risk of falls and fractures.

Arguably the most important element of exercise posttreatment is being able to maintain your exercise programme beyond cancer rehabilitation and make it into a lifestyle factor in order to reduce your risk of recurrence and maintain independence and higher quality of life, this can sometimes be more challenging as you move further towards ‘normal’ life following your treatment. Here are some key tips to maintain your exercise programme through treatment and beyond.


Set yourself a plan at the beginning of the week of what exercise you would like to do on which days – this way you can arrange your exercise around work, social engagements, family commitments etc in order to not overload yourself but at the same time giving yourself some accountability and structure for your physical activity. If you know you struggle to motivate yourself when it comes to exercise then booking classes is a great way to do this!


Set yourself a goal you would like to achieve – this will give you something to work towards and make it more likely that you will stick to your exercise programme. The goals your set should follow the SMART principles (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) so that you know exactly what you are trying to achieve, and when you are aiming to achieve it by. Having a measurable goal is important to make sure you can keep track of how your progress is going as you move towards it and will ensure you can tell once you’ve achieved the goals (and reward yourself for that)


Exercise doesn’t always have to be a session on the gym or the studio – it can be increasing the amount of movement you do outside of your structured exercise sessions. Examples of this are parking further away from the shops, taking an extra trip up and down the stairs at home or making sure you stand up and do a little bit of movement regularly when sitting at a desk for a long day at work.


This is particularly important if you know you struggle to motivate yourself – involve those around you, family and friends, to help keep you accountable and make your movement more enjoyable!

If you have any questions or concerns about how to safely exercise during and after treatment please do not hesitate to get in touch with one of our cancer rehab exercise therapists.

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