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Are there exercise guidelines for cancer patients?

This page has information about exercise during and after cancer treatment. There is information about


Exercise guidelines and cancer

There aren't any general UK guidelines about exercising after cancer. But several studies have shown that exercise is safe, possible and helpful for many people with cancer. 

When you think about how different we all are and how many different types of cancer and treatments there are, it is difficult to write exercise guidelines to cover everyone. In general, cancer patients should check with their doctors before starting any type of exercise.

In 2010 in the USA the American College of Sports Medicine reviewed published studies looking at the safety of physical exercise during and after cancer treatment. They also reviewed what effect the exercise had. They focused on breast, prostate, leukaemias and lymphomas, bowel and gynaecologic cancers. In general they recommended the same level of activity for cancer patients as for the general population. 

Generally, doctors advise at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, of moderate paced activity such as walking. This level of activity is helpful for people even during treatment. But everyone is different and exercise needs to be tailored to individual people, taking into account their overall fitness, diagnosis, and other factors that could affect safety.


When to avoid certain types of exercise

People with certain types of cancer or having particular treatments may need to avoid some types of exercise. There are some situations where you need to take extra care. For example, people with stomach or other digestive system cancers or cancer that has spread to the bone should not do heavy weight training. 

If you have cancer affecting your bones, you may be more at risk of a break or fracture. You must not put too much strain on the affected bones. You could try swimming or exercising in water. The water supports your body weight so the skeleton is not stressed. Exercise such as yoga generally appears safe for everyone. 

People with low immunity due to treatment need to avoid exercising in public gyms. 

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

Women with breast cancer can do upper body training but it should be done very slowly. 

The best advice is to talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about your fitness for any particular sport or activity.


How exercise can help

There are very good reasons for exercising. It can help to improve quality of life and help you to feel better. Some studies show that it can help to speed up recovery after cancer treatment. Regular exercise can reduce stress and give you more energy. 

One research study found that women who had had breast cancer were less likely to be anxious or depressed if they exercised for half an hour four times each week. The sooner the women started their exercise after their cancer treatment had finished, the better they felt. Studies suggest that up to 4 out of 10 women are depressed a year after their diagnosis so exercise could be helpful for this. 

A study published in March 2007 reported that women who had had breast cancer treatment felt better, had better shoulder mobility, and could walk further in 12 minutes, after a 12 week group exercise programme.

Some studies have looked at whether exercise could help lower tiredness (fatigue) during cancer treatment. In one study, researchers recruited 38 people having radiotherapy for either breast or prostate cancer. They asked half of them to follow a programme of moderate, home based exercise. After 4 weeks, the exercise group were doing more than the 10,000 steps recommended for healthy people. 

One study introduced an exercise programme for patients in hospital having intensive treatment. Those exercising were fitter at the end of the study and has less tiredness (fatigue). So having cancer need not stop you exercising. Tiredness and weakness is finally being recognised as one of the most common side effects from cancer treatment. It is encouraging that taking regular exercise can help to combat it.

Weight bearing exercise means running or rowing or anything where your bones are doing some work. This type of exercise may protect you against osteoporosis (thinning of the bones). Osteoporosis is a concern for many post menopausal women who have had hormone dependent cancers and so cannot take hormone replacement therapy.


Getting started

If you are having treatment (or have recently finished) it is fine to start exercising if you feel like it. How much you do really depends on how fit you are generally. If you've never done much exercise, you'll have to build up your level of exercise gradually. If you do too much one day, you may feel very tired and sore the next day. Don't feel that you always have to do more than yesterday. 

Some days you will have more energy than others. Having said that, don't let past lack of exercise put you off starting exercise altogether. Gentle walking or swimming is fine for just about everyone. You can still build up day by day.

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Updated: 30 December 2015