Penny Brohn UK

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The Benefits of Exercise During Cancer Treatment

benefits of exercise
We are hearing more oncology departments, cancer charities, and physios talking about exercise as being medicine. In 2016 Macmillan referred to physical activity as the underrated wonder drug. With so many different types of exercise available, it can be difficult to know just how much and what type of exercise will benefit us.

Alisa is the physical activity lead at Penny Brohn UK and has created a short video to cover the importance of being active whilst on cancer treatment.

How much exercise should we be doing whilst on treatment?

It’s really important you talk to your doctor first because everyone is different and everyone’s experience of treatment can be different.

It doesn’t have to be in large amounts, it may be very small doses or very gentle exercise but can still really help to improve your outcomes from your cancer treatment.

Deconditioning is when we become more sedentary while we go through our recuperation, and we may start to lose muscle mass, flexibility, heart and lung function and fitness. This happens to most of us as we go through surgery and/or treatment. However, research shows that if you manage to do small amounts of exercise it can help to reduce those side effects and improve your wellbeing.

What the evidence shows.

  • Movement can really help with cancer-related fatigue.
  • Trying to keep active whether it’s a short walk, a little bit of gentle movement, or maybe joining some classes, can really help reduce fatigue and brain fog.
  • Exercise on treatment can help to hold on to a healthy body composition.
  • Exercise and activity can help reduce the risk of depression by about 30%.
  • Moving helps release chemicals that make us feel much more positive, happy, in control and less stressed.
  • There’s moderate evidence that being active whilst on treatment can help reduce cancer recurrence risk and extend life expectancy.
  • Recent research shows that the contraction and relaxation repeatedly of your muscles whilst being active produces chemicals that stimulate your immune system.
  • Exercise can help with pain, insomnia, reduce anxiety and the feeling of social isolation.
  • Current studies are looking at how exercising in the hours before chemotherapy treatment seems to help improve the efficacy of your treatment as well as potentially reducing the side effects.
  • Following a healthy lifestyle leads to a 40% better response to immunotherapy.
  • When we get to the age of 60 or 70, we can lose up to about 3% of our muscle mass a year.

What type of exercise should I do?

When we consider how much and what exercise is suitable, we look at the context of age and the natural aging process rather than it all being about the cancer diagnosis. It’s predicted that we have our most muscle mass and bone density around the age of 30. After that it naturally declines, which is why it’s so important to counter the deconditioning that would happen anyway as we age but also due to treatment, medicine or surgery. Maintaining fitness can be walking, cycling, swimming, dancing or any sort of repetitive movement that helps strengthen the heart and lungs.

Building up in little steps towards some cardiovascular activity and muscle strength exercise could be in your everyday life, such as sweeping the leaves, carrying heavy shopping bags, marching up a steep hill or swimming with hand paddles to work on your muscles. This is also great for maintaining bone density which could be impacted by treatment.

Doing activities for your flexibility is also very beneficial. Doing some stretches every day, joining in on some light yoga, or doing tai chi for example can also help to counter the deconditioning.

Frequently Asked Question: How much weekly activity should I do?

  • Approximately 150 minutes of moderate activity a week and something twice a week for muscle strength. If you're over 65 it is also good to add in some work for balance.
  • This may feel unachievable which is ok because studies show that the first five minutes of exercise is where you get the most gains, so trying to do a little bit every week and build up gradually is a good way to start.

Safety Tips

  • Make sure what you’re doing is tailored to you and to build up exercise at your own rate.
  • If you experience any unexpected symptoms, such as dizziness or pain, it’s always best to check with your doctor and ensure it’s safe to restart or carry on with exercise.
  • If you’ve got osteoarthritis it’s fine to exercise you just might want to wait till later on in the day once your joints have warmed up and avoid activity on days the joints are very inflamed. More frequent shorter sessions may be best to avoid joint wear and tear.
  • If you experience peripheral neuropathy and lymphedema (a possible side effect from treatment) the research shows it is safe to exercise. Compression garments may be used if there is swelling, and weights may be avoided. However, range of movements can help pump that lymph along and help reduce the lymphedema over time and prevent it occurring.

Support and advice

You can check out your hospital physio team for support. The NHS has online resources such as NHS fitness studio that has a range of exercises from beginner to advanced styles.

The safe fit trail is a nationwide scheme anyone with a cancer diagnosis can join for one-to-one support.

Your local area may have activities like walking for health and GP exercise referral schemes.

Here at Penny Brohn we offer lots of online classes at the moment and Alisa offers one-to-one sessions for advice and support which can be booked through our bookings team by email or phone.

Exercise Resources

Penny Brohn UK Online Services - Online group sessions including exercise.

The SafeFit Trial - Support for people living with cancer to maintain and improve their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Meglio Blog - Plenty of tips and resources on exercise.

NHS Fitness Studio - 24 instructor-led videos across our aerobics exercise, strength and resistance, and pilates and yoga categories.

Bristol City Council - Energise cancer rehabilitation exercise classes.

Walking for Health - Offers over 1,800 free, short walks every week.

LinkAge Network - Activities and events across the West of England for people aged 55+.

Macmillan Cancer Support - Guide to becoming more active (PDF).

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