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Getting started

Before you start exercise, it’s important to talk to your doctor or oncologist about the exercise that’s best for you, how much to do and any precautions you should take. Ideally, your doctor can refer you to an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist for a health and fitness assessment and exercise plan designed for you.

The recommended amount of exercise can feel overwhelming. Aim to be as physically active as your abilities allow and adapt your exercise program to suit the type and stage of cancer. Some days may be harder than others, but even a few minutes of light exercise is better than none. It’s usually best to start physical activity slowly and build up gradually, instead of doing too much and exhausting yourself.

Seeing an exercise professional

Personal trainers, fitness instructors and exercise scientists aren’t trained to work with people affected by cancer. The appropriate allied health professionals to design an exercise program for people with cancer are:

Exercise physiologists – Also called accredited exercise physiologists (AEPs), these allied health professionals have completed at least a 4-year university degree. They use exercise as medicine to help with chronic disease management and overall wellbeing.

Physiotherapists – These allied health professionals have completed at least a 4-year university degree. They focus on physical rehabilitation, and prevention and treatment of injuries using a variety of techniques, including exercise, massage and joint manipulation.

How to find an exercise professional

There may be an exercise physiologist or a physiotherapist at your cancer treatment centre  who you can see. If not, your general practitioner (GP) can refer you to an exercise physiologist or a physiotherapist as part of a chronic disease management plan (which means you may be eligible for a Medicare rebate for up to 5 visits per calendar year).

In most cases, you will still have to pay to see an exercise professional. Check with your health insurer if they cover seeing an exercise physiologist or a physiotherapist. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs may also be able to financially assist some people.

When you look for an exercise professional, ask to see someone with experience working with people who have cancer.

Search for an accredited exercise physiologist (AEP) by name, location or specialty (i.e. cancer) at Exercise & Sports Science Australia’s website. Search for a physiotherapist on the Australian Physiotherapy Association’s website.

To find a group exercise program, ask at your cancer centre, ask your GP for a referral or call
Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Making an exercise program

An exercise professional can help develop a program based on what you can do, and any health issues, physical problems, disease impacts or treatment side effects related to the type and stage of cancer you have. You may go to one-on-one or group sessions, or your exercise professional may develop a program for you to follow at home. They will show you how to exercise safely and monitor the intensity of your exercise (e.g. by measuring your heart rate or how difficult it feels to do). If you can’t see an exercise professional, guides and information on these pages may help.

Tips for starting an exercise program

Find an exercise program that you enjoy, and that matches your current fitness level. Ask your health professional what activity is best for you and your ability.

Begin at home – Home-based exercise can be the easiest to start with. You can try some strength or resistance training exercises at home.

Try outdoor activities – Being active outdoors is a good way to add physical activity and exercise into your daily routine. You could try walking, riding a bike or swimming.

Join a group exercise program – Many gyms and fitness centres run group exercise programs. When joining, let your gym know that you have or are recovering from cancer, and ask if they have someone who can check whether the exercise program is right for you. Ideally, an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist will assess your health and fitness and tailor a program to
your needs. Your cancer centre may offer classes designed for people with cancer.

Do incidental activity – Move more throughout the day. You could walk or ride to the shop or hospital, or take the stairs. The important thing is to try and be active most days of the week.

Choose what to wear – You don’t need to buy expensive equipment or special clothing to do exercise, but the correct shoes are needed for walking or jogging. Visit a reputable shoe shop for suggestions to suit you and your health concerns. You may like loose, comfortable clothes, such as shorts and a T-shirt, when exercising. Or you may find close-fitting or supportive tights and a top are best for some exercise.

Find equipment – Activity monitors, hand weights, heart rate monitors and home-gym systems can be useful but aren’t necessary. You can add exercise equipment into your program at little to no expense. For example, a step is a great aerobic and resistance training device. A  backpack filled with a bag of sand makes for a good piece of resistance training equipment.

Mix things up – Try to include aerobic and cardio exercises as well as strength and resistance training in your weekly exercise program. Doing a combination of different types of exercise helps to improve more areas of your health and fitness.

Planning an exercise session

There are 3 general parts to an exercise session.

1. Warm-up

The aim of a warm-up is to increase blood flow to warm your muscles or gradually raise your heart and breathing rates. This prepares your body for further activity without a sudden elevation. A warm-up can include 5–10 minutes of low intensity aerobic and cardio exercise and light stretching. Walking or stepping up and down on a stair are good warm-ups. If approved by your doctor or exercise professional, you can use light weights to warm up before strength training.

2. Training

This is the part of an exercise session when the work is done. It could include activities from one or more types of exercises:

  • aerobic and cardio exercises
  • strength and resistance training
  • flexibility exercises
  • balance exercises. People with weakened bones or peripheral neuropathy can improve stability with balance exercises
  • pelvic floor exercises. Some people may need to exercise their pelvic floor muscles – especially if they have leaking or incontinence issues.

3. Cool-down

The cool-down allows your heart rate and blood pressure to gently return to normal. It also helps your body and muscles recover and reduces soreness after exercise. After aerobic or cardio exercise, cool down with 5–10 minutes of relaxed, low intensity activity such as slow walking or cycling. After strength or resistance training, you can cool down with light stretching.

Ways to stay motivated

Start an exercise diary – Record each day’s physical activity and exercise in a paper or digital diary or calendar. List the type of activity, and how long and hard you exercised.

Go online – Use free websites such as MyFitnessPal to record your exercise sessions. You can also use this website to record how much you’re eating and exercising.

Use fitness apps – Free smartphone apps such as Runkeeper, MyFitnessPal or STRAVA track your movement while you are exercising if you wear a smartwatch or keep your smartphone on you, or you can record your activity later. You can download them from the App Store (Apple) or Google Play (Android).

Wear a gadget – Also called wearables, devices such as those from Fitbit and Garmin are worn like a watch. They can track your steps or minutes of activity and transfer the data to your smartphone or computer. Some also monitor your heart rate and take electrocardiogram (ECG) measures.

Have options for bad weather – A combination of indoor and outdoor exercise options will mean you can keep exercising even if the weather changes or if it’s after dark.

Buddy up with someone – Exercise with family and friends to keep each other motivated. You can even share an online class together.

Muscle groups

These diagrams show the major muscle groups of the human body. Aerobic and cardio exercise focuses on improving your heart and lung fitness, but it also works many of your body’s muscles. Strength and resistance training, and flexibility exercise both focus on the muscles, with individual exercises usually targeting specific muscle groups. The exercises on these pages cover a range of muscle groups. An exercise professional can help you plan a weekly program that covers all the muscle groups and focuses on any areas that may need particular care or attention.

Featured resource

Exercise for People Living with Cancer

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed August 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Kirsten Adlard, Accredited Exercise Physiologist, The University of Queensland, QLD; Dr Diana Adams, Medical Oncologist, Macarthur Cancer Therapy Centre, NSW; Grace Butson, Senior Physiotherapist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kate Cox, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Wai Yin Chung, Consumer; Thomas Harris, Men’s Health Physiotherapist, QLD; Clare Hughes, Chair of Cancer Council’s Nutrition, Alcohol and Physical Activity Committee; Jen McKenzie, Level 1 Lymphoedema Physiotherapist, ESSA Accredited Exercise Physiologist, The McKenzie Clinic, QLD; Claudia Marck, Consumer; Dr David Mizrahi, Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Research Fellow, The Daffodil Centre at Cancer Council NSW and The University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Rob Newton, Professor of Exercise Medicine, Exercise Medicine Research Institute, Edith Cowan University, WA; Jason Sonneman, Consumer.

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