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Exercise guidelines for cancer patients

There are no general UK guidelines about exercising after cancer. But several studies have shown that exercise is safe, possible and helpful for many people with cancer. 

Guidelines

When you think about how different we all are and how many types of cancer and treatment there are, it's difficult to write exercise guidelines to cover everyone. In general, you should check with your doctor before starting any type of exercise if you have cancer.

Researchers have looked at the safety of physical exercise during and after cancer treatment. It also reviewed what effect the exercise had. It focused on:

  • breast cancer
  • prostate cancer
  • leukaemias and lymphomas
  • bowel cancer
  • gynaecologic cancers

In general it recommended the same level of activity for people with cancer 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's different and exercise needs to be tailored to you, taking into account your overall fitness, diagnosis, and other factors that could affect safety.

How exercise can help

There are very good reasons for exercising. It can improve your quality of life and help you 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. 

Your mood

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. 

Fatigue

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 people in hospital having intensive treatment. Those exercising were fitter at the end of the study and had less tiredness (fatigue). So having cancer need not stop you exercising. Tiredness and weakness are finally being recognised as among the most common side effects from cancer treatment. It's encouraging that taking regular exercise can help combat this.

Osteoporosis (bone thinning)

Weight bearing exercise means running, rowing or anything where your bones are doing some work. This type of exercise might 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.

When to avoid certain types of exercise

People with certain types of cancer or having particular treatments might need to avoid some types of exercise. 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 shouldn't do heavy weight training. 

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. 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 generally appears safe for everyone. 

Low immunity

People with low immunity due to treatment need to avoid exercising in public gyms. Ask your medical team when it is safe to start exercising in the gym with other people.

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.

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

Getting started

If you're having treatment or have recently finished, it's 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 gradually. If you do too much one day, you might feel very tired and sore the next day. Don't feel that you always have to do more than yesterday. Some days you'll have more energy than others.

But try not to let past lack of exercise put you off starting altogether. Gentle walking or swimming is fine for just about everyone. You can still build up day by day.

Last reviewed: 
30 Dec 2015
  • American College of Sports Medicine roundtable on exercise guidelines for cancer survivors

    KH Schmitz and others

    Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2010

    Volume 42, Issue 7

  • Benefits of supervised group exercise programme for women being treated for early stage breast cancer: pragmatic randomised controlled trial

    N Mutrie and others

    BMJ, 2007

    Volume 334

  • Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Database

    Accessed, 2015

  • Physical Activity during Cancer Treatment (PACT) Study: design of a randomised clinical trial

    MJ Velthuis and others

    BMC Cancer, 2010

    Volume 10, Issue 272

  • UK physical activity guidelines

    Department of Health, 2011

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