Exercise after cancer

I have often been asked by patients for things they can do to help themselves get through treatment and then improve their longterm survival. I believe that exercise plays a crucial role, with many potential advantages.

  • It may help improve your chances of survival.

There are now a number of studies showing increased survival in groups of patients that exercise after diagnosis.

These studies have been done in many types of  cancer for example breast (1,2) bowel (3), brain (4), prostate (5, 6) and lung (6). These studies are all slightly different but to summarize they demonstrated 43%-70% improvement in survival in the group of patients that exercised. In the breast cancer study it was 2 and ½ hours of brisk walking a week. In the bowel cancer study it was more (6 hours) per week of vigorous exercise.

  • It can help reduce your anxiety and stress associated with the diagnosis and the treatment.

Moderate to intense exercise is followed by a stress relieving endorphin release. Yoga is great for flexibility, circulation and stress relief. Everyone can stretch, no matter what stage of the journey you are on.

  • It can aid weight loss.

Sometimes successful cancer treatment can result in weight gain, a combination of inactivity and side effects of some of the medications. Studies have shown that being overweight following your cancer diagnosis is associated with decreased survival time and an increased risk of recurrence in many different cancer types (7). Getting down to an optimal weight will protect you from this risk.

  • It will build muscle.

Cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and steroids often lead to muscle loss and fat gain and also increase the risk of thinning of the bones (osteoporosis). Doing resistance training increases your muscle mass this helps to burn fat, but also helps to strengthen your bones and protect against osteoporosis.

  • It can speed up recovery and fight fatigue

Fatigue is a huge problem during and after cancer treatment, due to the side effects of the treatments and sometimes the cancer itself. Although you may feel too tired to exercise and that your instinct is to conserve what energy you have left you will actually feel better to get out there and get moving.

Having decided you want to start incorporating exercise into your life here are a few things to consider.

Your body is likely to be going though a lot of changes, so first things first, Lower your exercise expectations. Lets be clear, no one is expecting you to run a marathon now. Start with little changes, such as walking up stairs rather than taking the lift or incorporating a short walk into your everyday life. Sometimes wearing a pedometer can help give you motivation, as it can track your progress. I have a Fitbit and have found it has really stretched my exercise limits, mostly down to my innate competitive nature. Through the Fitbit app I found a group of likeminded individuals also looking to increase their exercise limits.

Start by having a think about how you like to exercise and then look for a programme, class or personal trainer to suit you. For example, I like to workout at home with no one watching but in order to give myself a support network I set up my fitness instagram account. This gave me two key support structures that have been key to sticking with my fitness plan; firstly a sense of community and secondly accountability.

I found following an exercise plan that intensified over a number of weeks the best way to improve and keep me interested. I used an e-book designed by Australian personal trainer Kayla Itsines called the bikini body guide (BBG). It is hard but because the workouts are short and don’t require much equipment I was able to do them at home around the kids nap times. I plan to do a separate blog post about BBG.

Most importantly listen to your body, some days will be better then others, modify your plans to how you are feeling. Your body confidence may have been shaken with the diagnosis but it is still your body you can regain control.



  1.  Holmes MD, et al., Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. JAMA. 2005;393:2479-86.
  2.  Irwin ML, et al., Influence of pre and postdiagnosis physical activity on mortality in breast cancer survivors: the health, eating, activity, and lifestyle study.  J. Clin. Oncol. 2008:26:3958-64.
  3.  Meyerhardt JA, et al., Impact of physical activity on cancer recurrence and survival in patients with stage III colon cancer: findings from CALGB 89803.  J. Clin Oncol. 2006: 24:3535-41.
  4.  Williams PT, Reduced risk of brain cancer mortality from walking and running. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2014 May;46(5):927-32.
  5.  Giovannucci EL, et al., A prospective study of physical activity and incident and fatal prostate cancer.  Arch. Intern. Med.  2005:165:1005-10.
  6. Lakoski, S.G., et al.  Midlife Cardiorespiratory Fitness, Incident Cancer, and Survival After Cancer in Men The Cooper Center Longitudinal Study.  JAMA Oncol. 2015;1(2):231-237. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.0226
  7. McTiernan AN. Obesity and cancer: the risks, science, and potential management strategies. Oncology. 2005 Jun 1;19(7):871-81.

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