Exercise for Cancer Survivors: Level 2

This information explains how you can get enough exercise after your cancer treatment.

Physical Activity and Exercise

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

Exercise is a type of physical activity in which you do body movements that are planned, structured, and repetitive in order to improve or maintain your physical fitness level. To get the health benefits of exercise, include 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, can make your muscles stronger. 

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Benefits of Exercise for Cancer Survivors

Exercise may help to:

  • Decrease the risk of developing certain cancers, such as breast and colon cancer.
  • Lower the risk of cancer recurrence (especially for people with a history of breast and colorectal cancer).
  • Improve overall cardiovascular (heart) health.
  • Control weight and improve body image.
  • Improve quality of life and overall psychological well-being.
  • Maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints.
  • Improve the ability to perform activities of daily living and prevent falls.
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Experts recommend the following:

  • At least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes, or 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week) of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes or 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week) of vigorous-intensity exercise (see table below). In general, 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise provides the same benefits as 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise. You can combine the moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise. For example, you could do 3 days of moderate-intensity exercise for 30 minutes each day and 2 days of vigorous-intensity exercise for 15 minutes each day.  
  • Two to 3 sessions per week of strength training that includes your major muscle groups. Your major muscle groups are your chest, shoulders, arms, back, abdomen, and legs. Strength training activities include push-ups, sit-ups, using resistance bands, and lifting weights.
  • Stretching your major muscle groups 2 to 3 times a week. 
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Exercise Intensity Levels

Light-intensity Exercise Moderate-intensity Exericse Vigorous-intensity Exercise
Leisurely biking Biking on level ground with hills Biking faster than 10 miles per hour
Slow walking Brisk walking Race walking, jogging, running
Light housework Gardening Aerobics or fast dancing
T’ai Chi Yoga High intensity yoga or Pilates
Playing catch Doubles tennis Singles tennis
Bowling Water aerobics Swimming (fast pace or laps)
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Increasing Your Exercise

  • If you are already meeting the weekly exercise goals described above, you can gain even more health benefits by slowly adding more time to your weekly routine. Make a goal of doubling your weekly time (5 hours).
  • Instead of doing only moderate-intensity exercises, replace some of it with vigorous-intensity exercises that will make your heart beat even faster. Adding vigorous-intensity exercise provides benefits in less activity time. If you want stronger muscles, you can also try increasing your strength training from 2 to 3 days a week. 
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Tips for Success

  • Set short-term and long-term goals. For example, you can plan to run 1 mile a day for a week, and then work your way up to 3 miles.
  • Track your time and progress on a chart. There is a chart at the end of this resource, or you may want to use an app on your phone or tablet to monitor your progress.
  • Plan your activity for the week.
  • Join a fitness group.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about good activities to try.
  • Mix it up! Try something new.
  • Find an exercise you enjoy.
  • Slowly add more time, intensity, and effort to your exercise sessions.
  • Try to include exercise that uses 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 purchasing new exercise clothing or a new book.
  • Stay safe and avoid injuries. Choose activities that are appropriate for your fitness level and use the right safety gear and sports equipment. 
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Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Resources

Video that encourages cancer survivors to exercise and shows simple exercises that they can do.
Video that shows simple exercises to strengthen your major muscle groups and boost your heart rate.
Video that explains how exercise can have positive effects on your health during cancer survivorship, and offers recommendations about how to exercise safely and stick with a routine.
Video that explains how exercise can have positive effects on your health and offers recommendations about how to exercise safely and stick with it.
Video that explains exercise safety issues if you have lymphedema, bone metastasis, osteoporosis, brain tumors, loss of sensation in the extremities, or low blood cell counts.
Blogpost that discusses what cancer survivors should know about exercise during and after treatment.

Charts to Track Your Activity

Day of the week Activity and intensity Minutes of exercise
Total for the week    


Strengthing exercise

Day of the week Activity 
Total days for the week  
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