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Physical Activity After Cancer

Most people know that physical activity is good for health. However, for cancer survivors, being active is even more important. Many of the health problems experienced by cancer survivors due to their cancer or late effects of therapy can be helped by regular physical activity.

Benefits of Physical Activity

  • Improves physical fitness, strength, flexibility, and balance
  • Reduces risk for chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and certain cancers
  • Reduces risk for obesity and helps people stay at a healthy weight
  • Promotes bone health
  • Improves mental health and reduces risk for anxiety and depression
  • Improves brain health and cognitive function 
  • Increases confidence and sense of well-being
  • Provides opportunities for social interactions

Physical activity is important for people of all ages, abilities, and fitness levels. Benefits of physical activity generally increase with more activity. However, some activity is better than no activity, and there are many ways to add physical activity into daily life.

Types of Physical Activity

Lifestyle physical activity is physical activity carried out as part of daily living such as walking, taking the stairs, gardening, and housework. For children, lifestyle activity might include walking or biking to school, playing at recess, or doing chores.

Structured exercise is planned physical activity done to improve or maintain an aspect of fitness or health.

  • Aerobic Exercise: continuous physical activity involving repeated movements that causes an increase in heart rate and breathing and improves endurance and cardiorespiratory fitness. Examples include brisk walking, jumping rope, jogging, dancing, tennis, biking, swimming, and playing sports like basketball or soccer.
  • Strength or Resistance Training: muscle-strengthening exercises using weights, resistance bands, or body weight resulting in an increase in muscle strength and endurance. Examples include lifting weights and exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, burpees, and squats. Children can also improve strength through active play by climbing on playground equipment or playing games like tug-of-war.
  • Balance Training: stationary or movement-based exercises designed to improve stability and the ability to maintain posture. Examples include standing on one leg, using a stability ball, and doing tai chi or yoga.

Recommendations for Physical Activity

Research has guided recommendations on how much physical activity people need to improve health and lower risk for disease.

Statue of children running and playing

For cancer survivors, physical activity can help with some health problems and late effects of therapy.

Children and Teens

All youth need 60 minutes or more of physical activity each day. Physical activity should be at least moderate intensity. Three days each week, physical activity should include vigorous-intensity physical activity and muscle- and bone-strengthening activities. This can be achieved through lifestyle activity, structured exercise, active play, or sports. Activities should be age-appropriate and enjoyable.


All adults should avoid inactivity. Some physical activity is better than no activity. For important health benefits, adults should aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity activity. Physical activity can be done in short bouts of 10 minutes or more and can be added up throughout the week. Greater health benefits are seen with additional physical activity. 

At least 2 days per week, adults should do muscle-strengthening activities working the major muscle groups. This can include resistance training using weights or body weight exercises. Balance exercises are important for people who are at risk for falling. 

For people with chronic health conditions or disabilities, physical activity can be adjusted to their level of fitness and abilities. A licensed/certified rehabilitation or fitness professional can help with tailored activity plans to meet individual needs.

What is moderate-intensity aerobic activity?

Moderate-intensity aerobic activity is physical activity that causes an increase in heart rate and breathing. This means an effort equal to a brisk walk, as if walking in a hurry. For adults, a brisk walk is a pace of 15-20 minutes per mile. Examples of other activities that count as moderate intensity are hiking, water aerobics, doubles tennis, gardening, vacuuming, and pushing a lawn mower. For children, moderate-intensity activities include riding a bike, walking the dog, skateboarding, rollerblading, and other types of active play.

The talk test is another way to tell if activity is moderate intensity: A person should be able to talk doing moderate-intensity activity but shouldn’t be able to sing a song.

Aerobic physical activity should be at least moderate intensity and done in bouts lasting at least 10 minutes at a time.

Gardening is one activity that pediatric cancer survivors might choose to make physical activity more enjoyable

Since you are more likely to stay physically active if you enjoy it, try to find hobbies or other activities that are fun.

Being Active: Tips for Survivors

Talk to your doctor. Moderate physical activity is safe for most people. However, talk to your primary care physician before starting an exercise program. Ask what types of modifications or monitoring may be needed. 

Start slow. Your body will adapt to physical activity, but it takes time. Starting slow reduces risk for injury and keeps you from becoming frustrated. It is ok to challenge yourself, but stick to a reasonable goal. Increase the amount of physical activity or the intensity of exercise as you become more fit. 

Find activities you enjoy. You are more likely to stick to physical activity if it is fun. There are many ways to be active. Dance, work in the garden, walk the dog, or play a sport. If you do structured exercise, find a way to make it enjoyable. Get a workout buddy, watch a tv show, or listen to music. Discover what works best for you.

Do a variety of physical activities. Doing different types of activity has several benefits. Including a variety of activities into your physical activity routine reduces risk of boredom and burnout, targets different areas of fitness, reduces risk of overuse injuries, and provides options when one type of activity isn’t available. 

Set goals, and track your progress. Make a physical activity plan with a goal in mind. Goals should be somewhat challenging but realistic. Track your progress, and adjust your goals up or down as needed. Activity journals, mobile apps, and wearable trackers are all good ways to monitor physical activity.

Get help from a licensed rehabilitation provider or a certified fitness professional. A physical therapist or trained exercise specialist can support survivors in reaching their physical activity goals. Some fitness professionals have additional training and certifications in working with individuals with medical conditions and physical limitations. These professionals can help survivors by monitoring responses to physical activity, making sure exercises are done safely, and adapting activity to meet specific health needs.

For more information on physical activity recommendations, see Physical Activity Basics for children, adults, older adults, and pregnant or postpartum women.

Reviewed: June 2018