What is cancer?

Cancer is the name given to a collection of related diseases. Many cancers form solid tumours, which are masses of tissue. Cancers of the blood, such as leukaemia, generally do not form solid tumours.

Cancer occurs when abnormal cells divide in an uncontrolled way. There are more than 200 different types of cancer and it is estimated that 1 in 2 people in the UK will get cancer in their lifetime.

Why is physical activity important for cancer?

There is lots of evidence that physical activity can help at all stages of the cancer pathway, from pre-treatment to during and after treatment.

Being physically active helps to overcome cancer-related fatigue, anxiety and depression, while protecting the heart, lungs and bones. In some cases, being physically active has also been shown to slow the progression of cancer, improve survival and reduce the chance of cancer reoccurring.

Did you know?

  • Women who are physically active have a 20-30% lower risk of breast cancer
  • If you are physically active you have a 30-40% lower risk of developing cancer of the colon
  • In the UK, about 3.4% of all breast cancers and 5.3% of colon cancers are caused by inactivity

Physical activity: pre-treatment

Exercising before undergoing surgery or other cancer therapies can help you to feel more in control and mentally prepared for treatment. It can also help you tolerate difficult treatments and experience fewer complications.

Physical activity: during treatment

Being physically active during cancer treatment is generally safe and is very important when it comes to managing your health and wellbeing. Whether you are undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or another form of treatment, physical activity has been found to have a number of benefits. Regular physical activity can:

  • Reduce the risk of blood clots (common if you have recently had surgery, chemotherapy or hormonal therapy)
  • Help you to maintain your cardiovascular fitness, strength and bone health while undergoing treatment
  • Improve cancer-related fatigue, depression and anxiety
  • Improve sleep quality
  • Improve metabolism and immune function
  • Help regulate blood sugar levels during treatment
  • Reduce the number of side effects and the severity of side effects that you do experience

Physical activity: after treatment

If you have completed cancer treatment, maintaining an active lifestyle is extremely important in helping to restore physical function and general wellbeing. Regular physical activity can help you manage and reduce the risk of:

  • Late effects of treatment such as fatigue
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Other health problems, such as heart disease or type II diabetes

There is also strong evidence that being physically active has a preventative effect and can reduce your risk of certain cancers coming back.

How much physical activity should you be doing?

You should aim to take part in the recommended amount of physical activity for your age group, as outlined in the UK Chief Medical Officer's Physical Activity Guidelines.

For adults aged 19 and over, the recommended amount is at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. Where possible, this should be a combination of cardiovascular, strength, flexibility and balance exercises. These could include:

  • Cardiovascular activities - brisk walking, cycling, swimming, dancing
  • Strength activities - resistance training, Yoga, Nordic Walking, carrying heavy shopping, heavy gardening
  • Balance/mobility - Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, body balance classes

However, we know that the way your cancer can make you feel is unpredictable, and some days can be far worse than others. The type and amount of physical activity that you can manage will depend on your current level of fitness, the type of cancer you have and the treatment you are having. The most important thing is to listen to your body.

If you were already previously active before undergoing cancer treatment, you may find that you need to exercise at a slower pace or at a lower intensity during treatment. You can slowly increase it again after treatment ends.

Helpful tips for keeping active with cancer

Here are some helpful tips for staying active during cancer treatment:

  • Start gently and build up gradually. If you are new to activity build up slowly over 3-6 months
  • There may be activities you need to avoid or be careful with. There may also be some weeks when you have to do less, such as immediately after chemotherapy. It is important not to suddenly start intense exercise that you are not used to
  • Try to be active everyday - do a little even when you're tired
  • Reduce the amount of time you spend sitting or lying down
  • Modify the type of exercise that you do depending on the type of cancer and treatment you're receive (for example, avoid cycling if you have recently had prostate/rectal cancer surgery or avoid high impact activities if you have cancer in your bones)
  • During chemotherapy and radiotherapy cycles, you may notice there are days when you are more or less tired. Pace activity to do a little more on your better days
  • Being active in a group or class can give you social support and help keep you motivated. If you do exercise in a group environment, remember to wash your hands between using equipment to avoid infection

If you are unsure about exercising during treatment or the types of activity that you can do, talk to your specialist consultant, nurse, physiotherapist or GP. Some hospitals and community services also have cancer exercise specialists or classes that you can be referred to.

For more information about cancer, follow the links below: