Expert Advice and Support

What are the benefits of exercise when you have a cancer diagnosis?

Posted by Guest Author on 16 July 2021

By Annabel Mackie and Rachel Evans from FF4C Fighting fit for cancer

Exercise has been shown to provide powerful benefits for your physical health and emotional well-being when you have cancer. Engaging in exercise after diagnosis significantly lowers the risk of death from cancer and reduces the risk of cancer recurrence. 

A large review published in 2017 looked at over 100 research studies investigating the impact of exercise on the prognosis and wellbeing of people with cancer. They found that greater levels of exercise after cancer is associated with a reduction in cancer related death by between 28 and 48% and may also reduce the risk of cancer recurrence by up to 35%.

Taking part in regular physical activity and exercise has also been shown to have a big impact on how you feel during treatment, with studies showing those who participate in regular exercise reporting increases in their energy levels, improving appetite and sleep and enhancing overall quality of life.

And it may not be a surprise to learn that exercising has also been found to have a big impact on your emotional well-being and coping when you have cancer, raising the levels of feel good chemicals in the bloodstream, lifting your mood and improving self-esteem. And these positive effects have been seen across a number of cancers; there is particularly strong evidence in breast, bowel, prostate and lung cancers.


The World Health Organisation has recently updated its guidance to bring their recommendations for those with cancer to be the same as the advice for all adults. Each week, we should accumulate at least 150 minutes (2 and a half hours) of moderate intensity activity (such as brisk walking or cycling); or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity (such as running).

It is also recommended that you should do two to three resistance exercise (e.g: lifting weights) sessions each week targeting the major muscle groups.


Aerobic exercise and resistance exercise are critical to the health and well-being of cancer survivors. Aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, swimming and jogging exercise have been shown to provide specific benefits to our body which can impact on treatment side effects and improve fitness and energy levels. Here are some tips on how to boost your exercise routine:

👉🏻If you’re new to exercise, start with little and often and build gradually. When walking, do brief spells of faster walking and slow-paced walking. Start with a short interval of 10 seconds faster walking which makes you breathe more deeply. Then walk as long as you need to recover back to your normal breathing rate. Over time aim to increase your faster walking interval to 30 seconds. Repeat this 5 times and build it up over time.

🎯 Set a specific goal – having a target to work towards keeps you motivated and give you a great sense of achievement when you meet it.

❤️ Take the stairs when you can, stair climbs are a good form of aerobic training.

👌🏽 Buy a pedometer (step counter) and increase your number of steps daily.  Most smart phones have this built in now 😊

💪🏽 Two or three sessions of resistance exercise training a week are recommended as part of your weekly exercise routine when you have a cancer diagnosis. If you’re not used to this sort of training, begin with light weight (1-2kg) and then build on that week by week.

🙌🏻 You will have periods where your energy levels are low so rest and recover when you need to. Equally when you have good days and weeks; the WHO guidelines are a minimum to follow; work with your body and do more if you feel able to.


Start by finding a time of day which works then create a consistent routine what fits with your lifestyle. Schedule it as part of your day so it becomes a habit. It doesn’t matter what time of day you choose, so long as it suits you. Ensuring you exercise regularly is the key. 


You may benefit from specific types of exercise to gradually restore your mobility and fitness after surgery, depending on what type of surgery you have had. Your doctor or health professional will be able to guide you as to the best time to start your exercise programme. Often you’ll be provided with an initial exercise programme when you leave hospital.

Remember for most people exercising with cancer is not only safe, but an important way to support your treatment. Take you time to build into it and listen to your body and you have all the tools to take control to get the benefits of movement and exercise to support your health and well-being. 

Hopefully this has inspired you to get moving and active again. If you’re unsure where to start, get in touch with us at Fighting Fit for Cancer, we have a number of programmes that can help guide you back to movement designed specifically for cancer patients.  Go on, get moving and tell us what you like doing tag us @  

Annabel Mackie and Rachel Evans from FF4C Fighting fit for cancer

July 2021

The information and content provided on this page is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice.


Claire diagnosed in 2016
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