Physical Activity & Exercise

Cancer and treatments can lead to many side effects- fatigue, pain, poor sleep, low mood and weight changes.

The good news that physical activity and exercise can help in all these areas. 

This page describes what physical activity and exercise are and how to do them. 

If you need information on how to be active with a cancer diagnosis, click on the link below for our module specifically designed to help you be physically active throughout your entire cancer journey.

What is physical activity?

Physical activity is any movement that uses energy.  It’s often things we do all the time without even realising they count as forms of physical activity, such as: 

  • walking

  • climbing the stairs

  • mowing the lawn

  • cleaning the house


These activities can improve your fitness, strength and balance. 


What is exercise?

Exercise is a planned, structured, and repetitive activity to improve or maintain physical fitness. It’s a type of physical activity, but not every physical activity is exercise. There are different types of exercise, for example, running, cycling, press ups, sit to stand, squats, Pilates or Yoga.

Staying safe:

For most people, it's safe to do physical activity or exercise before, during and after cancer treatment.

However, we would recommend that you follow the advice on our online module here.


How much physical activity should I be aiming for? 

The recommendations are to do: 

  • 30 minutes a day on 5 days a week of moderate aerobic physical activity. This is any activity that makes you feel your heart beat a bit faster, you feel slightly out of breath, you can still speak in sentances but not sing a song.  Alternatively you can do more vigorous aerobic activity for 75 minutes a week. 
  • Strengthening activities to work all the major muscle groups on at least 2 days a week
  • Balance- if you are over 65 or have issues affecting you balance, you should aim to do balance exercises twice a week.


Building up aerobic physical activity:

Being active is important as it gives us the ability to do the things we want to do. Cancer and cancer treatment can reduce fitness levels.  

It’s important to build up your aerobic physical activity slowly, so that you understand what you can manage and increasingly improve your health and fitness.

Here is an example of how to progress the aerobic physical activity of walking:

  1. Aim to walk most days of the week for a short time. 
  2. Once you are walking most days of the week, then increase the amount of time you spend walking. 
  3. Now you can increase the intensity through walking faster, using stairs, walking up slopes or jogging in bursts. 

For some recorded exercise videos to follow along with, click on this link.


Building stronger muscles:

Strong muscles are important as they let us do the things we enjoy. Cancer and cancer treatments can weaken your muscles. Let's look at how to strengthen our muscles.

Aim to do muscle-strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms) on 2 or more days a week.

In a typical training session of around 20 minutes you could do some of the following exercises:

  • Press up against the wall or on the floor
  • Sit to stand or squat
  • Lunge 
  • Bridge
  • Bicep curls
  • Overhead Tricep

A repetition is 1 complete movement of an activity, like lifting a weight or doing 1 push-up or 1 sit-up. Try to do 8 to 12 repetitions for each activity, which counts as 1 set. Try to do at least 2-3 sets of of each of the muscle-strengthening activities.

Exercises should be performed to the point at which it would be difficult to do another repetition without help. To make it more challenging you can use free weights or you can use things from the home like bottle of water, tin cans or door stops.

Remember to start gradually and build up over a period of weeks. It is common to feel a little sore in the next days after a session, as you get stronger these will occur less often. 

For some recorded exercise videos to follow along with, click on this link.


Building stronger bones:

Some treatments (including hormone therapy, long term steroids, chemotherapy, surgery, or radiotherapy) may have a negative impact on bone health. 

Poor bone health means that we’re more at risk of breaking bones. Doing additional ‘weight bearing’ or ‘impact’ exercises maintains and improves our bone health. There are different levels of impact and it’s important to do the one that feels right for you. We’d always recommend starting low and building yourself up slowly. Here are some examples of low, moderate and high impact exercises:

Low Moderate High
  • Walks or brisk walking
  • Jogging or running
  • Basketball
  • Climbing stairs
  • Team or racket sports
  • Volleyball
  • Marching 
  • Skipping or hopping
  • Star jumps
  • Stamping 
  • Low level jumping
  • Track events

For some recorded exercise videos to follow along with, click on this link.


Balance exercises:

Our balance deteriorates as we age, so it’s important to regularly challenge it to keep our independence and reduce our risk of falls. This is especially important if:

  • your balance has been affected by cancer or your treatment

  • you're over 65 years old

  • you have a bone disease.


You can do a range of activities to challenge your balance. Click here to see examples of activities you can do!


Need help or advice?

If you're not sure if it's safe for you to exercise, speak to your cancer doctor. If you're in south east London or have had your treatment at Guy's and St. Thomas', you can call our cancer physiotherapy team on 020 7188 9654 or email

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