Staying active during and after cancer treatment

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Being active can help you feel better both physically and mentally and improve overall health. Learn how you can stay active during cancer treatment and after.

Key points

  • Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy lifestyle, manage symptoms and reduce late effects of cancer.
  • You can build more physical activity into your life by moving more during the day and adding dedicated time for physical activity and exercise.
  • Exercise should not be painful; stop exercising immediately if you experience chest pain, dizziness, severe shortness of breath or nausea.

Why be physically active?

Being active helps you feel better and look better and boost your overall health. Research shows that physical activity can help you in a number of areas: maintaining a healthy lifestyle, managing symptoms, and reducing late effects of cancer.


Physical activity:

  • helps you maintain a healthy weight
  • improves your mood, self-confidence, and feeling of well-being
  • helps you sleep better
  • lowers the risk of developing depression and helps you recover from depression
  • lowers stress and anxiety

Symptom management

Physical activity:

  • helps you manage pain
  • supports your immune system to fight infections

Late effects

Physical activity:

  • keeps your heart healthy, which is especially important if you’ve been treated with chemotherapy or radiation!
  • reduces the risk of developing some kinds of late effects from cancer treatment
  • lowers the risk of developing secondary cancers, such as breast and colon cancers in the future
  • makes your bones stronger, especially if you have had certain treatments that can weaken your bones

Tip: Exercises such as walking or playing outside will help keep your bones strong. If you want a greater challenge, exercises such as running, jumping, or lifting weights can help make your bones even stronger.

Make sure you talk to your doctor or physiotherapist before you start any physical activity.

A study in 2011 showed that physical activity is related to an improved quality of life in young cancer survivors. But the same study found that only half of young cancer survivors are getting enough physical activity and almost a quarter are completely sedentary (doing no regular activity).

Building more physical activity into your life

Active living

Active living means finding more ways to move your body during your normal day. This might mean taking the stairs instead of the elevator, getting off the bus one stop earlier, or walking or biking places instead of getting a ride or driving. Every little bit of movement counts! This is a great way to start getting more active.

Physical activity and exercise

Physical activity and exercise mean moving your body more vigorously. This could include going for walks, biking, playing a sport, dancing or joining a gym.

It’s important to talk to your health-care provider and maybe a physiotherapist before you start adding physical activity to your routine. Some types of cancer and treatment have long-term effects on your body. This can make certain kinds of activity risky or difficult. Your health-care provider or physiotherapist can help you figure out which activities are safe and practical for you if you have some limitations because of cancer or treatment.

Tip: Bring some ideas for how you can be more active to your next appointment so you can discuss them with your health-care team.

What makes the difference between sticking to a plan to get active and letting it slide is whether or not you enjoy it! Being active should be fun and leave you feeling good.

Think of three ways you are going to build more activity into your life.

Here are some tips for getting active when you have or have had cancer.

  • Set realistic activity goals and work towards them.
  • Plan to exercise at times when you usually feel better or have more energy.
  • Start slow and build up your endurance. Eventually you should aim to do at least 30-60 minutes of physical activity five or more days a week.
  • Be realistic in the activities that you choose. Maybe making the soccer team at your school just isn’t possible right now. That doesn’t mean you can’t kick the ball around with your friends.
  • Try not to compare yourself to others or to yourself before cancer. It’s hard not to, but this may only make you feel frustrated.
  • Be patient! It might take a little while to find the right activity and the right intensity. Intensity means how much energy you need so that you can do the activity. Take breaks when you need to.
  • Be creative. You may discover a new activity or a new way of doing an old activity that can be really fun.

Exercise should not cause pain! Stop right away if you experience chest pain, dizziness, severe shortness of breath, or nausea.

For more tips, check out Canada’s Phys​ical Activity Guidelines from the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology.

Another great resource is ParticipACTION, a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to promoting physical activity across the country.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019