Cancer: How can physical activity help?
Whether you've just recently been diagnosed with Cancer, or have been living with it for a while, the first thing to bear in mind is that you're not alone. There is so much support and various resources available to help you out, whether you need to talk, or support in remaining active.
Of course, 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. If you're feeling like you can take on more, do so gently and gradually so as not to overwhelm yourself. We have resources for all abilities, so there will be something to suit you and help keep you physically active whilst living with Cancer.
What are you looking for?
For those living with Cancer:
- What to do after diagnosis
- Getting started with exercising
- Exercises for people living with Cancer
- When to avoid exercise
- Local and national support for Cancer and physical activity
For Healthcare Professionals:
For those living with Cancer
This section is designed for those who are living with or supporting someone living with Cancer. They focus on the ways to manage Cancer and most effectively incorporate physical activity into your day safely.
If you are looking for the science behind Cancer and how exercising with Cancer impacts our bodies, or for referral resources, click here.
What to do after a Cancer diagnosis
- Get support: Make sure you have a support network, whether it's friends, family or a support group you can join.
- Be aware of the help available: There are several charities and organisations which can provide impartial advice and guidance for all areas of healthy living.
- Reach out: It can be easy to feel lonely after a diagnosis. Whether you reach out to loved ones or seek advice from your GP, make sure you keep talking to people.
- Ask for help: Your body will be going through some changes, so don't be afraid to ask for assistance if you need it, whether it's with bigger tasks like doing the gardening, or small tasks like putting the shopping away.
- Start small: If you're starting your active journey with Cancer, be sure to start small and gentle to let your body ease into it.
- Build up slowly: Physical activity can do wonders for boosting your immune system. When you feel ready to build up, do so slowly and gradually.
- Rest: Listen to your body. If it's aching, then you likely need to rest it. Don't be ashamed of needing to sit down for a few extra minutes, or to take a nap - if your body needs rest, then be sure to provide!
- Keep your head up: We know it can be a scary time. But you are not alone. Try and do one thing a day which makes you smile; it will do wonders for your wellbeing.
If you have just recently been diagnosed, we appreciate it can be a scary and confusing time. The best thing to do is to ensure you're aware of the support networks and groups available, so you can process the news and reach out if you need to.
Check out Fran's story on how exercise aided her recovery from life-threatening Cancer.
Getting Started: Exercising with Cancer
It's very important to remain as physically active as possible when living with Cancer. With a few exceptions (see below) healthcare professionals recommend aiming for 150 minutes of light to moderate exercise per week.
Exercising with Cancer has not only been proven to help boost your immune system which fights off further illnesses, but remaining active will boost your mood, and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
Top tips on beginning to exercise when you have Cancer:
- 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.
- Gentle aerobic activities are best – try starting with a gentle walk, bike ride, or swim.
- Strength building activity is also important. Try yoga or some resistance work to keep muscles strong.
- Notice the days & times when you feel you have more energy & use those times to build on your activity levels
- Gradually increase to 20-30 minutes of exercise to breathlessness each day, starting small with gradual steps aiming to increase your exercise capacity.
- When you're ready, try some more sociable exercises, like doubles badminton, dancing, yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, or brisk walking with a friend. Exercising with a friend can help keep you committed.
- As your strength, confidence and stamina improves, try to aim for the recommended 150 minutes moderate activity per week. This can be broken down into bouts of 10 - 20 minutes whenever you can fit it in.
Many are worried they cannot exercise with Cancer. However, in general, its recommended to do the same level of activity for people with cancer as for the general population: 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week.
Exercise ideas for people living with Cancer
If you're unsure on your level of mobility, you should always consult the relevant health professional supporting you at that time (GP, Clinical Nurse Specialist, Surgeon etc) or local level 4 cancer and exercise specialist before trying new exercise. However, many of these exercises can be done sitting down or even from bed so the risk of injury is greatly reduced.
Exercises suitable for those living with Cancer:
- Bed exercises: If you've recently undergone treatment or are just feeling a bit fatigued, our recovering from illness section contains exercises to keep you moving even from bed.
- Chair Based Exercises: Our Falls Prevention videos can be done standing or seated and are a great way of building up your strength and balance.
- Sitting room circuits: Again, these can be done standing or seated depending on what feels most comfortable for you. These circuits can be done in your living room, and don't require any equipment.
- Mindful exercises: Mental health is just as important as physical health, and these mindful exercises will allow you to put some time aside to focus on your wellbeing.
- Outdoor exercise: Going for a walk or a light run is great if you're feeling up to it. Our Active Outdoors section lists several walking routes around Norfolk, whilst our On the Move Outdoors section is aimed at those who need more accessible routes.
Some home videos you can try:
When to avoid exercise
People with certain types of cancer or having particular treatments might need to avoid some types of exercise. Your GP should be able to advise on your particular 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:
Cancer affecting your bones - If you have cancer 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, as the water supports your body weight so the skeleton isn't stressed. Exercise such as yoga are generally low impact and safe for everyone.
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 - 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 - 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 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 to, do not to exercise.
For Healthcare Professionals
We've listed some key information about the science behind Cancer, 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 the Active Norfolk physical activity and health e-learning page for directive conversation support.
How can being active reduce the risk of Cancer?
Protein - 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 cancer cells grow and repair DNA. There is some evidence that physical activity can be a good tool to stop cancer returning post treatment.
The idea that exercise training might help control prostate cancer progression also comes with much fewer side effects & a potential reduced need for invasive treatments such as surgery, radiotherapy or hormone therapy.
Fatigue- Tiredness & weakness are a side effect of cancer treatment, this can be countered through a moderate programme of physical activity.
Osteoporosis- Weight bearing exercises such as running, lifting & impact, prevent thinning of the bones to protect against osteoporosis
Inflammation - The bowel helps us use the food we eat. It also processes waste which passes out of our bodies as excrement.
Being active helps move food through our bodies. This reduces the amount of time any harmful chemicals in food waste are in contact with our bowel, helping to prevent cancer.
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 increasing the risk of cancer.
Hormones - Being active can affect the levels of some hormones in our body. Hormones are chemical messages that are carried around our body to tell different parts what to do. Oestrogen and insulin are both hormones.
Cancer starts when cells divide too much and multiply out of control. 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, helping to prevent breast cancer. 
Insulin could also affect how cells multiply. Being very active can reduce levels of insulin and help reduce the risks of cancer.
Resource bank for Cancer and physical activity
There are lots of charities and organisations available to signpost to, as well as case studies and inspirational stories which are there to provide reassurance and motivation.
Charities and organisations for support
Alive West Norfolk: Wellness Referral Scheme (PDF, 1.1 Mb)
Moving Medicine: Being active is important for cancer (PDF, 958 Kb)
Advice for young people caring for someone with Cancer (PDF, 2.6 Mb)
Cancer: Coping with breathlessness (PDF, 1.6 Mb)
Cancer in older people (PDF, 470 Kb)