Physical Activity Tips for Survivors

Aprobado por la Junta Editorial de Cancer.Net, 02/2019

Research shows that physical activity is helpful during and after cancer treatment. For example, regular physical activity may lower the risk of some cancers recurring. It can also help you feel better after treatment ends.

Other benefits of an active lifestyle include:

  • Improved self-esteem

  • Feeling happier

  • Being less likely to have depression, anxiety, and fatigue

  • Having more strength and endurance

  • Better bone health

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Defining physical activity levels

Physical activity can be divided into 3 levels: light, moderate, and vigorous. 

Light activity. During light activity, you are not sitting, lying down, or standing still. You may not exert yourself, but you are not inactive. Examples include washing dishes, walking slowly, preparing food, and making the bed.

Moderate activity. During moderate activity, your breath rate increases. But you can still talk without feeling out of breath. Walking is a great moderate activity. Other examples include ballroom dancing, canoeing, and gardening.

Vigorous activity. During vigorous activity, your heart beats faster and you breathe heavily and sweat. Often, you are not able to talk much. Vigorous activities include jogging, jumping rope, and swimming.

You can do these activities in various locations:

  • At home

  • Outside, such as in a park 

  • In a gym

Physical activity tips for cancer survivors

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the American Cancer Society, and the American College of Sports Medicine provide the following recommendations for living a physically active life:

Avoid inactivity. Any kind of physical activity helps, even if it is not at a moderate or vigorous level. More studies are showing that being inactive increases the risk of some cancers. Being inactive, or sedentary, means you spend most of your time sitting without physical activity.

Be regularly active. Each week, try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. Try spreading these activities throughout the week. However, getting this much exercise over 1 to 2 days also helps.

Include strength training. Lift weights and do other muscle-building exercises at least 2 days a week.

Consider short sessions. If you do not have time or energy for long exercise sessions, go for shorter periods. The health benefits of several short, 10-minute segments are similar to those of 1 longer exercise session.

Start slow. If you are new to exercise, slowly increase the length and intensity of your physical activity. Keep ramping up until you reach 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a day.

Questions to ask your health care team

Talk with your doctor and other health care team members about your physical activity. They can provide guidance and help you find exercise resources. Consider asking these questions:

  • How will physical activity improve my health?

  • What type of activity should I do?

  • Is it safe to exercise during cancer treatment?

  • Should I avoid certain exercises?

  • Should I limit the amount of weight I use in strength training?

  • How often should I exercise?

  • How long should I exercise during each session?

  • What activity level should I target?

  • Should I do more than 1 type of activity?

  • What resources are available to me?

  • How can I exercise in my home? In my neighborhood?

  • Who can help me set up a safe exercise program?

Related Resources

Physical Activity and Cancer Risk

How Cancer Survivors Can Get Exercise Support

4 Components of an Effective Exercise Program for Survivors

More Information

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity

National Cancer Institute: Physical Activity and Cancer

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: Guide to Physical Activity