Cancer: How can physical activity help?

Being physically active can not only help prevent many forms of cancer, it can be used as a method to manage the symptoms and even aid in the treatment of those living with it. As with everyone else, the recommendation is still to aim for 150 minutes of physical activity per week.

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to exercising with cancer; some will find they are more able to do more physical activity than others, depending on the type, stage and various other factors. The most important thing is to listen to your body. If something hurts, then stop doing it.

We have resources for all abilities, so there will be something to suit you and help keep you physically active whilst living with cancer.

Living with Cancer

This section is designed for those who are living with or supporting someone living with Cancer. It focuses on the ways to manage it in your day to day life, and most effectively incorporate physical activity into your day safely.

If you are a healthcare professional looking for referral resources, click here.

How can physical activity help those living with cancer?

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Increased self-esteem and confidence


Reduces risk of further health complications

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Prevent muscle loss and build strength

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Prevent weight gain and obesity

Remember to start small. The biggest improvements come from making small changes that you can increase safely and incorporate into your daily routine.

This could be taking the stairs rather than the lift, or parking at the back of the car park not by the door. If you want to take it a step further, try getting off the bus a stop early and walking short journeys.

For ideas on what exercises to do, check out the Active at Home section. We have exercises for people living with a health condition, which everyone can take part in.

When to avoid exercise

People with certain types of cancer or having particular treatments might need to avoid some types of exercise. Your GP or specialist LTC Healthcare Professional should be able to advise on your specific case. However there are some situations where you need to take extra care.

For example, if you have stomach or other digestive system cancers, or cancer that has spread to the bone, you should avoid heavy weight training.

Some other examples include:

Bone cancer

Bone cancer

If your illness is affecting your bones, you might be more at risk of a break or fracture. You must avoid putting too much strain on the affected bones, so avoid high impact exercises. You could try swimming or exercising in water. Exercise such as yoga are also generally safe for everyone.

Low immunity

Low immunity

People with low immunity due to treatment should avoid exercising in public gyms & pools. Ask your medical team when it is safe to start exercising in the gym with other people, and if possible stick to local walks or spend time in the garden.

Peripheral neuropathy 

Peripheral neuropathy

Some people have loss of sensation, or feelings of pins and needles, in their hands and feet due to cancer treatments. This is called peripheral neuropathy. If you have this it might be better to use a stationary bike than to do other types of weight bearing exercise.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer

Women with breast cancer can do upper body training but it should be done very slowly. Always listen to your body and stop if you feel discomfort.

Visit your GP or specialist LTC Healthcare Professional for a check-up if you haven’t exercised before; if returning from injury or if you’re returning to exercise after a long break. Always seek advice from you GP or local level 4 cancer and exercise specialist (available locally through the Big C or some exercise referral programs) & if advised do not exercise.

For Healthcare Professionals

We’ve listed some key information about the science behind how being physically active can help, as well as some resources which you can download or signpost patients to. 

For further information about having conversations with people living with cancer and physical activity please visit Moving Medicine and our E-learning page for directive conversation support.

Lady receiving support for cancer
Cancer survivor running

How can being active reduce the risk of cancer?

Healthy Weight – Studies suggest that being overweight puts you at higher risk of certain cancers. A regular exercise regime will help you maintain a healthy weight, whilst providing several other benefits

Protein – A specific antigen or PSA is a protein produced by cells of the prostate gland. PSA level which is measured in the blood can help show if prostate cancer is growing.

Early data suggests that exercise might be beneficial in terms of helping regulate the way that cells grow and repair DNA. There is some evidence to suggest that physical activity can be a good tool to stop it returning.

Osteoporosis– Weight bearing exercises such as running and lifting help to prevent thinning of the bones, which in turn protects against Osteoporosis.

Digestion– Being active speeds up digestion and helps move food through our bodies faster. This reduces the amount of time any potentially harmful substances which can be found in food waste are in contact with our bowel, helping to prevent complications.

Inflammation: Being active also helps control levels of inflammation in the bowel. Inflammation is a normal way our bodies respond to damage. But if there is too much, it can cause our cells to multiple more often, which increases the risk.

Hormones – Being active can help regulate hormone levels. Increased levels of certain hormones can increase your chances of getting cancer. Cancer starts when cells divide too much and multiply out of control. Hormones such as oestrogen could encourage cells in the breast to divide more often. If you’re doing a lot of activity it can reduce the levels of oestrogen, which helps to prevent breast cancer.

Insulin could also affect how cells multiply. Being very active can reduce levels of insulin and therefore help reduce the risks of cancer.

For more, check out the resource bank below or the NHS page on cancer.

Resource bank for cancer and physical activity

Charities and organisations

Documents and downloadable resources

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