Physical activity

This information is really important, whether you’re a gym bunny, a couch potato or somewhere in between!

 “If physical activity were a drug, it would be hitting the headlines” Professor Jane Maher, Macmillan Cancer Support Chief Medical Officer

We’re told all the time that exercise is ‘good for us’ … but lots of us don’t do any or don’t do enough, for many different reasons. Some people don’t enjoy it, don’t see the point, don’t have time, don’t prioritise it over other things or … just don’t do it!

BUT often people are unaware (because if often is not discussed) what a massive role physical activity can play in cancer treatment. Macmillan Cancer Support call physical activity ‘the underrated wonder drug’! Often patients, their families and friends, and even medical professionals, think that the best thing to do while on treatment is to rest all the time, spend maximum time in bed and wait until treatment is over before becoming active again. But there is now lots of research evidence to show that keeping active (see below for what that means!) can:

  • Minimise physical de-conditioning resulting from cancer treatment
  • Minimise fatigue and brain fog
  • Improve psychological wellbeing, for example reduced anxiety and improved self-esteem
  • Reduce length of stay in hospital
  • Reduce the risk of other health issues eg heart and lung problems, musculoskeletal problems, diabetes, mental health issues


What does ‘keeping active’ mean?

On treatment

This depends on lots of things, including how active you were before diagnosis, what your diagnosis is and what treatment you are having. Your medical team, clinical nurse specialist or physiotherapist can advise as to what is safe and appropriate for you. But here’s an example of the difference it could make:

Joe and Dan both spend several weeks in hospital to have antibiotics for a chemo-related infection. Joe stays in bed pretty much all the time, apart from getting up to go to the bathroom. Dan makes a plan with one of the nurses that he’ll get up twice a day for a 10 minute walk to the hospital café, which includes climbing a flight of stairs. Dan has a few days where he feels too poorly to do anything, but manages to get to do the walk most days.

Joe starts to find it difficult to sleep at night, as he’s in bed so much. Dan sleeps better at night because he has done something during the day.

When their infections have responded to treatment, Dan is discharged straight away, whereas Joe has to stay in for two extra days as he’s become really deconditioned and needs to build up his strength so he can do the stairs safely at home.

This is just an example – everyone is different and it’s really important to get individualised advice from your team. But don’t under-estimate the difference that even small amounts of physical activity could make to how you feel and your physical wellbeing.

After treatment

Physical activity and exercise can have a massive role to play in helping people maximise their health and wellbeing after cancer treatment.

Again, what and how much you should do depends on lots of things, including how active you were before diagnosis, what treatment you’ve had and what side effects you’ve experienced. Your medical team, clinical nurse specialist or physiotherapist can advise as to what is safe and appropriate for you.

In many places, there are specialist gym schemes at local leisure centres for people who have finished cancer treatment and would like advice and support in increasing their levels of activity and exercise – ask your treating team or your GP for information.

It’s good to be aware of the Department of Health physical activity guidelines for adults: 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week (which equals 30 minutes of exercise 5 times per week). You may be way off this initially and that’s ok, it’s just good to be aware of this guideline (which is based on research about the health benefits of exercise) and set yourself some realistic goals which will help you become more active.

Note: often it is our head rather than our body which makes exercise difficult. If we feel low or stressed or bored or frustrated, it can be tricky to find the motivation to be active. If so, there is help out there. Talk to your treating team – speaking to one of them, or getting a referral to someone who can help you overcome the barriers in your head – could really help you.

If you want to read more about this, including the evidence base behind these recommendations, please see the following: