When you do it at a level that works for you and it's adapted to suit your needs, exercise is generally safe and can bring loads of benefits for those both living with or through cancer and those beyond treatment. It's good for your body and it's good for your mental health too. But this isn't news. We've known for a while that exercise has both physical and mental benefits. It's the reason our RENEW programme exists. But how does it help? How do exercise and cancer go together? We asked exercise physiologist Tom Cowan to explain all. 


Exercise and being physically active has numerous benefits for our health and fitness. To attain the various benefits of exercise, it is important to perform different types of exercise. Doing cardiovascular exercise, like brisk walking, jogging or cycling can lead to physiological changes to the heart, blood and blood vessels which help to maintain or improve cardiovascular health and fitness. Resistance training can help to develop your muscle mass and improve body composition (that's the amount of muscle and fat in your body) and maintain or enhance muscular endurance and muscular strength, in turn helping us perform everyday activities. Flexibility training can also be important, such as performing mobility exercises to regain your range of movement especially if you've had surgery like a mastectomy.  

When you're starting out, it can be confusing to know where to begin. You've got to do the right type, amount and intensity of exercise for you. This might vary from person to person, based on their diagnosis and health conditions, existing fitness levels, the amount of exercise they're already doing, what treatment they're on or have had and the side-effects they're experiencing. The exercise prescription should be uniquely tailored for each person and may change as they go through the different stages of cancer treatment; pre, during and post-treatment.  

A personal trainer with a cancer rehabilitation instructor qualification, like those who work on Trekstock's RENEW programme, will be able to tailor your workouts to your needs and your health and fitness goals. You should always speak with your oncologist or doctor before beginning a new exercise programme. 


Doing moderate cardio for at least 30 minutes at least three times per week and a minimum of 2 sessions per week of resistance training which stresses the major muscle groups of the body is generally recommended. This can be a good target to work towards over time but these recommendations may need to be modified for some people. For example, if you're not exercising currently or are exercising less than these amounts, then try to begin at your current amount of exercise and build up slowly towards these levels. It's important not to overdo it and to allow plenty of recovery in your schedule. 

The amount of exercise that you feel able to do may well fluctuate from day to day, especially if you're suffering from fatigue, which may make exercising feel unrealistic and unachievable. On days like this, rest or try to perform gentle physical activity if you feel able to. Exercise should be energising not exhausting. 

You don't need me to tell you that going through cancer treatment is tough on both the body and the mind. Cancer treatments can result in a whole host of different side effects, all of which can make exercising and being physically active a real challenge but there is some evidence to suggest moving your body can actually help to combat some of the side-effects from treatment. 

Fatigue is the most common side effect of cancer and cancer treatment and can often be experienced by people undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy. While it seems counter-intuitive to suggest working out can help fatigue (surely exercising would tire you out and make you more fatigued?), there's actually good evidence to suggest exercise can help. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network names exercise as the number one approach for managing cancer-related fatigue. That being said, there may be days when you can’t muster the energy to exercise or even get out of bed at all. Listen to your body and factor this as a rest day. Try to do a little exercise or movement on another day when you feel more able to. A short walk around the block a few days later might be just the ticket. 

 

Yes! Resistance exercise can help to maintain your muscular strength and endurance, which may make performing everyday activities easier and make your muscles more resistant to fatigue, allowing you to walk further for example before your muscles tire. Cardiorespiratory fitness typically reduces during chemo. This is measured by something known as VO2peak. But performing cardiovascular exercise can help to maintain it and make everyday activities feel less of an effort. Exercise can also lead to improvements in general cardiovascular health, such as reducing blood pressure, improving your cholesterol ratio and improving the functioning of the heart. 

Exercising when you've got cancer and you're juggling side effects is a big ask. But physical inactivity may lead to a reduction in muscle mass and body weight. Sarcopenia (aka a loss of muscle mass and strength) negatively affects outcomes for cancer patients. Avoiding inactivity as much as possible is therefore important, as being physically active can lead to the maintenance and development of muscle mass and those positive changes in body composition as well as helping to combat side effects of treatment. Less side effects + reducing the risk of sarcopenia = a v good thing. 


Exercise and physical activity can be performed on your own but it is often much more enjoyable, and therefore more likely to be something that you'll want to do frequently, if you do it with someone else or with a group of people. There's even some evidence to suggest that supervised exercise programmes may result in greater improvements in quality of life and physical function than unsupervised exercise. Supervised training programmes appear to be more beneficial in improving anxiety than unsupervised exercise programmes. 

Find out more about RENEW or check out our Lifting the Lid on Moving with Cancer for more support.