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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 at different stages

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?

If you're looking to become more active you should aim to take part in the recommended amount of physical activity for your age group, as outlined in the Recommended Activity Guidelines.

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.

Self-management of your activity levels

Everyday activity is one of the easiest ways you can become more active. Building activity into your daily life, whether as part of a commute to work, trips to the shops or walking the dog, this all adds up to increasing activity.

You may also find the resources and website below useful.

Cancer Research UK: Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Patients

Macmillan: Move more Get active, feel good exercise information booklet and DVD

Penny Brohn Care Centre UK: ‎Staying Active During Cancer

Trekstock Young Adult Cancer Support

The Christie NHS Foundation: Exercise Booklet


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