Exercise During and After Cancer Treatment: Level 1

This information explains how you can get enough exercise during and after your cancer treatment. This resource is for people who don’t currently exercise.

Talk with your healthcare provider before you start exercising. Depending on your cancer treatment plan, you may need to avoid or adjust some exercises or activities. If you had surgery, always ask your surgeon if it’s safe before you start exercising.

Back to top

Physical Activity and Exercise

Physical activity is any movement of the body that uses energy. Some of your daily life activities such as doing active chores around the house, yard work, or walking the dog are examples of physical activity.

Exercise is a type of physical activity. When you exercise, you do body movements that are planned, structured, and repeated to improve or maintain your physical fitness level. Try to include the following activities to get the health benefits of exercise:

  • Activities that make you breathe harder, such as brisk walking, running, dancing, swimming, and playing basketball.
  • Strengthening exercises, such as push-ups and lifting weights. These exercises can make your muscles stronger.
Back to top

Benefits of Exercise

Exercise may help:

  • Lower your risk of getting some types of cancers, such as breast and colon cancer.
  • Lower your risk of cancer recurrence (the cancer coming back). This is most important for people with a history of breast and colorectal cancer.
  • Improve your overall cardiovascular (heart) health.
  • Control your weight and improve your body image.
  • Improve your quality of life and overall mental health.
  • Keep your bones, muscles, and joints healthy.
  • Improve your ability to do activities of daily living.
  • Prevent you from falling.
Back to top

Before You Start Exercising

Talk with your healthcare provider before you start any new exercise plan. They’ll help you figure out if you have any conditions that may affect which exercises you can do. They may recommend that you get a medical evaluation or meet with a trained exercise specialist, such as a physical therapist (PT), cancer rehabilitation specialist, or certified trainer.

Conditions that may affect what exercises you can do include:

  • Unsteady walk (unsteady gait)
  • Having a low red blood cell count (anemia)
  • Severe fatigue (feeling unusually tired, weak, or like you have no energy)
  • Having an infection
  • Not getting enough nutrients or vitamins in your diet
  • Poor bone health or osteoporosis (a condition in which bones get very weak)
  • Arthritis or musculoskeletal issues
  • Problems with your muscles or bones
  • Peripheral neuropathy (tingling or numbness in your hands and feet)
  • Having an ostomy or central venous catheter (CVC)
  • Uncontrolled heart or lung disease
  • History of lung surgery or major abdominal surgery
  • Lymphedema (swelling caused by a lymph node blockage) in the limb(s) you’re using to do resistance or strength training exercises
Back to top

Recommended Amount of Exercise

Experts recommend the following:

  • Try to get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week.
    • You can do this by exercising for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. The table in the section “Exercise Intensity Levels” gives examples of moderate-intensity exercise.
  • Aim for 2 to 3 strength training sessions per week. These sessions should include your major muscle groups: your chest, shoulders, arms, back, abdomen (belly), and legs. Push-ups, sit-ups, using resistance bands, and lifting weights are examples of strength training activities.
  • Stretch your major muscle groups at least 2 times a week.

As part of a healthy lifestyle, you should do general physical activity every day. You should also avoid long periods of not moving, such as sitting for hours at a time.

Back to top

Exercise Intensity Levels

Light-intensity Exercise Moderate-intensity Exercise
Leisurely biking Biking on level ground with hills
Slow walking Brisk walking
Light housework Gardening
T’ai Chi Yoga
Playing catch Doubles tennis
Bowling Water aerobics
Back to top

Starting an Exercise Program

Think about the reasons why you haven’t been exercising. Then try to come up with some ways to get past the things keeping you from getting exercise. For example:

  • I haven’t been active in a very long time. Start at a comfortable level and add a little more activity as you go along. Choose something you like to do. Many people find walking helps them get started. Before you know it, you’ll be doing more each day. Some people also find that getting active with a friend makes it easier to get started.
  • I don’t have the time. Start with 10-minute chunks of time a few days a week. Walk during a break. Dance in the living room to your favorite music. It all adds up.
  • It costs too much money. You don’t have to join a gym or buy fancy equipment to be active. Play tag with your kids. Walk briskly with your dog for 10 minutes or more.
Back to top

Building up activity levels over time

  • Start by doing what you can, and then look for ways to do more. If you haven’t been active for a while, start out slowly. After several weeks or months, build up your activities by doing them for longer and more often.
  • Walking is one way to add exercise to your life. When you first start, walk 10 minutes a day for a few days a week. Do this for the first 2 weeks. Then, start walking for a little longer. Try 15 minutes instead of 10 minutes. Then walk more days a week.
  • Once you can walk easily for 15 minutes several days a week, try walking faster. Keep up your brisk walking for a couple of months. You may want to add biking on the weekends for a change.
Back to top

Tips for Success

  • Pick an activity you like and one that fits into your life.
  • Find the time that works best for you.
  • Be active with friends and family. Having a support network can help you keep up with your program.
  • There are many ways to build the right amount of activity into your life. Every little bit adds up, and doing something is better than doing nothing.
  • Set short-term and long-term goals.
    • For example, your short-term goal could be to walk around your neighborhood for 15 minutes on 3 different days.
    • Your long-term goal could be to slowly add more time and days until you’re walking 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
  • Track your time and progress on a chart. You can use the charts at the end of this resource. You can also try an app on your phone or tablet to monitor your progress.
  • Plan your activity for the week. Experts say spreading aerobic activity out over at least 3 days a week is best.
  • Join a fitness group.
  • Talk with your healthcare provider about good activities to try.
  • Try activities you haven’t done before
  • Find an exercise you enjoy. Focus on having fun.
  • Slowly add more time, intensity, and effort to your exercise sessions.
  • Try to include exercises that use large muscle groups, such as your thighs, abdomen, chest, and back.
  • Start with warm-up exercises for about 2 to 3 minutes. For example, you can do shoulder shrugs, march in place, or knee lifts. End your exercise session with light stretching.
  • Recognize and reward your achievements. For example, if you reach your exercise goal, reward yourself by buying new exercise clothing or a new book.
  • Stay safe and avoid injuries. Choose activities that are appropriate for your fitness level. Be sure to also use the right safety gear and sports equipment.
Back to top

Adding Exercise to Your Daily Routine

  • Walk around your neighborhood after dinner. If the weather is bad, you can walk around in a mall.
  • Ride your bike. If it’s cold out, you can get a bike trainer. This tool can turn your regular bike into a stationary bike that you can use indoors.
  • Mow the grass or rake the leaves instead of using a leaf blower.
  • Scrub your bathroom.
  • Wash and wax your car.
  • Play active games with your kids, such as freeze tag or jump rope.
  • Weed your garden.
  • Take a friend dancing or dance in your own living room.
  • Use a treadmill or do arm curls, squats, or lunges while watching TV.
  • Walk to lunch.
  • Park your car in the furthest parking spot and walk to your destination.
  • Use the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator.
  • Get off the bus or subway a few stops early and walk the rest of the way to where you’re going.
  • Make appointments in your planner or set reminders on your phone to remind yourself to take a 10-minute walking break.
  • Form a walking club with friends.
  • Wear a pedometer (a device that tracks your steps) or use a fitness tracker such as a Fitbit® every day to try to increase your daily steps.
Back to top

Additional Resources

These resources show how you can add exercise and physical activity to your daily life. They offer exercise tips depending on the status of your cancer treatment. Talk with your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program.

If you have any questions, contact a member of your care team directly. If you’re a patient at MSK and you need to reach a provider after 5:00 pm, during the weekend, or on a holiday, call 212-639-2000.
Back to top

Charts to Track Your Activity

Day Activity and intensity Minutes of exercise
Total minutes:    

Strengthening exercise

Day Activity
Total days:  
Back to top

Tell us what you think

Tell us what you think

Your feedback will help us improve the information we provide to patients and caregivers. We read every comment, but we're not able to respond. If you have questions about your care, contact your healthcare provider.

Questions Yes Somewhat No

Last Updated