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Why exercise is important

Physical activity and exercise

Physical activity is a broad term for body movement that uses your muscles, and may speed up your  breathing and heart rate. It includes exercise sessions as well as some everyday activities, like housework, gardening and walking the dog.

Exercise is usually structured physical activity that aims to improve health and fitness. It can include doing planned or specific movements (like you would in a yoga class or with an exercise physiologist), or other physical activity (like going for a bike ride or walk).

Below we explain why exercise is important for people with or recovering from cancer, and any precautions to take. We also give a guide to how much exercise you can aim to do. Most people take some time to get back into exercise, so try to be patient with yourself – it’s okay to try a little to start with and work up to what you need to do.

Check with your health care team before starting any exercise. The exercises described on these pages suit most people but may not be safe for you.

I walk 3 or 4 times a week. It gives me extra energy and helps clear my mind. If I don’t do any walking, I really notice the difference in my energy levels and my mood.” RIMA

The different types of exercise

Aerobic and cardio exerciseUses large muscle groups repeatedly and is usually done over an extended period; Causes your heart and breathing rates to rise; Increases your ability to use oxygen, which improves heart, lung and muscle fitness; With time, strenuous tasks become easier.
Strength and resistance training Makes your muscles work harder than usual against some sort of resistance; Strength or resistance training is also known as weight training; Over time, improves the size, quality and capacity of your muscles.
Flexibility exercisesCan help to stretch your muscles; Improve your flexibility or how far you can move – also called your range of motion; Include yoga and Pilates.
Balance exercisesBeing able to stay upright or in control of your body movement; Often done by being still (static) but sometimes also by moving (dynamic); Improve stability, which can help to prevent falls.

Along with exercise, eating well is essential for health and wellbeing. See a dietitian and read our information about ‘Nutrition for People Living with Cancer’. You may also like to listen to our podcast ‘Finding Calm During Cancer’ for relaxation and meditation exercises.

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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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