Is it safe to exercise during cancer?

Generally, it’s safe, and beneficial, for people with cancer to keep physically active (of which formal exercise is part of). However, it’s best to start slowly and build up how much you do, and importantly, how hard you push yourself.

This is particularly important if you aren’t currently active, or it’s been a while since they were last active. The key thing is to listen to your body and adjust how much you do depending on how fatigued you feel.

There’s growing evidence that people who are able to be active before and after a cancer diagnosis have a better chance of survival. However, there are some treatments that can make keeping active harder for a period of time.

Physical activity can help to:

  • Reduce fatigue.
  • Support the immune system.
  • *Maintain and increase muscle mass (with muscle-strengthening activities), and reduce muscle loss.
  • Improve ability to absorb nutrients from food.
  • Reduce anxiety and depression, and improve mood.
  • Prevent or improve lymphoedema (a type of swelling caused by treatment to lymph nodes).
  • Deal with some of the other side-effects, such as easing constipation by helping to move food through the bowel quicker.

*Have a look at What exercises can I do at home during or after cancer treatment? for some example exercises you can try at home.

Note: you might want to let your doctor or specialist nurse know if you want to start getting more active, as they might be able to signpost you towards an appropriately qualified oncology exercise specialist who can give individual advice and support.

When to avoid certain types of exercise

People with certain types of cancer or having particular treatments might need to avoid some types of exercise. There are some situations where extra care is needed. Such as:

Cancer affecting the bones

If someone has cancer affecting their bones, they might be more at risk of a break or fracture. They should avoid putting too much strain on the affected bones. They could try swimming or exercising in water. The water will support their body weight which reduces the stress on the bones. Cycling on a stationary bike is also beneficial, as is yoga, which is generally safe for everyone.

Low immunity

People with low immunity due to treatment (or the type of cancer they have) should try to avoid exercising in public gyms, and swimming in public pools. They should ask their medical team when it’s safe to start exercising around other people. However, this doesn’t mean they can’t be physically active in other ways.

Peripheral neuropathy

Some people have a loss of sensation, or feelings of pins and needles, in their hands and feet. This is called peripheral neuropathy and can be a side effect of cancer treatments. If someone is experiencing this, it might be better to use a stationary bike than to do other types of weight-bearing exercise, such as brisk walking.

After certain types of surgery

After certain types of surgery, you might have to wait before you exercise like you used to. You should talk to your doctor, or a qualified cancer exercise specialist or physiotherapist for advice on what types of exercise are safe and appropriate for you.

Get more advice on keeping active during cancer

> What exercises can I do at home during or after cancer treatment?

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