Being active

Making time in your day or just finding the desire to be active may not seem that important when you’re living with cancer. But it’s worth the effort. There are many ways that being active during and after treatment helps both mind and body. Being active during treatment can:

  • improve your sleep and appetite
  • lower your blood pressure
  • reduce stress and anxiety
  • ease side effects like nausea, pain and fatigue
  • boost your self-esteem and improve your quality of life

The list of good things doesn’t end there. If you have lost strength during treatment, regular activity can help you rebuild and maintain it. Being active plays an important role in helping you achieve or maintain a healthy body weight, improve your heart health and reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Studies suggest that it can help lower the risk of cancer returning and lead to longer survival.

Being active every day reduces fatigue

Many people fear that exercising will make them more tired. But regular daily activity – such as a brisk walk – actually is a good way to reduce fatigue. There is more and more evidence to support this.

Try to build up to at least 30 minutes of activity every day. If you can’t do that, some activity is better than none. You can push your body to do more as long as you don’t get dizzy or have chest pain or feel like your heart is racing.

Check in with your healthcare team

Talk to your healthcare team before getting started. They can let you know what type of activity is safe for you and how quickly you can increase your activity level. Gentler forms of exercise such as brief, slow walks, stretching and swimming are almost always OK to start with. But if you’re planning to get back to something vigorous (such as heavy gardening, lifting weights or playing a contact sport), your healthcare team needs to know.

If you were physically active before or during cancer treatment, you may be able to get back to your regular routines without too much trouble. If you’ve never been physically active before, start slow and gradually increase the amount you move.

Go slowly and choose wisely

It can take time to discover what you’re capable of and to get used to changes in how your body works. You may have to accept that your body has new limits during or after treatment – when getting started, you may not be able to move very far or very fast. You may be quite tired, especially at first. Don’t discourage yourself by setting goals that are too big. Start with small goals you can achieve and work toward them bit by bit. Even someone who used to run marathons needs to start again with a walk around the block.

Almost any sport or activity can be adjusted to your fitness level, so the important thing is to choose something you enjoy. You might try walking at first to build up some strength and stamina. If you need to stay in bed during your recovery, even small activities like stretching or moving your arms and legs can help you feel better, stay flexible and relieve muscle tension. Eventually, try getting out of bed and walking around the house.

What you need to work toward is getting moderately active for about 30 minutes a day or almost every day. Moderate physical activity includes activities such as brisk walking, tai chi or water aerobics, but it can also include raking leaves, vacuuming or doing the laundry. You can achieve your overall goal of 30 minutes a day in 3 separate sessions of 10 minutes each.

When you’re ready, you might want to move on to more vigorous activities such as hiking uphill, digging in the garden, doing martial arts, swimming laps or playing a sport like soccer or hockey. If you’re not sure what kind of physical activity is right for you or you’d like help adjusting what you did in the past, talk to your healthcare team. You may be able to join a rehabilitation or exercise program staffed by physiotherapists and other healthcare professionals.

If you have bone metastases , it's important to understand how to be physically active in a safe way. Certain activities may increase your risk of injury. Find out more about being physically active when you have bone metastases.

Tips for becoming more active

Here are some ideas to help you become more active:

  • Try to exercise when your energy level is highest.
  • Park farther away from your office, the doctor’s office or the grocery store so you can get a few more steps into your day – or get off the bus or train a few stops early and walk.
  • Find an indoor place, such as a local mall, to walk when the weather is bad.
  • Combine physical activity with something you like to do. For example, do arm curls, squats or sit-ups while you watch TV.
  • Find an exercise partner or group. Exercising with other people can keep you motivated and provide some friendly support. Perhaps someone who went through treatment with you or someone from a local support group would be interested in meeting and going for walks.
  • Try line dancing, belly dancing or Zumba if you enjoy music.
  • If you have knee or hip pain, try water exercise classes that are easier on the joints.
  • Find activities you can do as a family, such as bowling or playing physically interactive video games.
  • Walk the dog around that extra block. If you like animals and don’t have one of your own, check with a local animal shelter about volunteering.

Expert review and references

  • Courneya KS . Physical activity and exercise interventions in cancer survivors. Holland JC, et al (eds.). Psycho-Oncology. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press; 2010: 61: pp. 455-459.
  • Park CL . Healthy lifestyles in cancer survivorship: personalized approaches to change and maintenance. Lester JL & Schitt P (eds.). Cancer Rehabilitation and Survivorship: Transdisciplinary Approaches to Personalized Care. Pittsburg: Oncology Nursing Society; 2011: 29: pp. 307-315.
  • Pinto BM & Ciccolo JT . Motivation for lifestyle changes after cancer. Lester JL & Schitt P (eds.). Cancer Rehabilitation and Survivorship: Transdisciplinary Approaches to Personalized Care. Pittsburg: Oncology Nursing Society; 2011: 27: pp. 285-293.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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