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 in which you do body movements that are planned, structured, and repeated to improve or maintain your physical fitness level. To get the health benefits of exercise, you should try to include the following activities:
- 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.
Benefits of Exercise for Cancer Survivors
Exercise may help:
- Decrease 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.
- Maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints.
- Improve your ability to do activities of daily living.
- Prevent you from falling.
Recommended Amount of Exercise for Cancer Survivors
Experts recommend the following:
- Try to get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise each week. The table in the section “Exercise Intensity levels” gives examples of moderate and vigorous intensity exercise.
- You can do this by exercising for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week at a moderate intensity or for 15 minutes, 5 days a week at a vigorous intensity.
- 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 (belly), 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.
As part of a healthy lifestyle, you should do general physical activity daily. You should also avoid long periods of not moving, such as sitting for hours at a time.
Exercise Intensity Levels
|Light-intensity Exercise||Moderate-intensity Exercise||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)|
Increasing Your Exercise
- Talk with your oncologist (cancer doctor) or Survivorship Nurse Practitioner (NP) before you increase your exercise level if you experience a worsening or changing condition (such as your lymphedema getting worse).
- If you’re already meeting the weekly exercise goals, you can gain even more health benefits by slowly adding more time to your weekly routine. Make a goal of doubling your weekly exercise time to 5 hours.
- Instead of doing only moderate-intensity exercises, replace some of it with vigorous-intensity exercises, which 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.
Tips for Success
- Pick an activity that you like that fits into your life.
- 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.
- Consider using a pedometer, which tracks your steps, or a wearable fitness tracker, such as a Fitbit®. These will help you monitor your progress.
- Track your time and progress on a chart. There is a chart at the end of this resource that you can use, or you can 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.
- Try new activities that you haven’t done before.
- 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 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.
Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Resources
MSK has many resources that show you how to add exercises to your daily life:
- This video encourages cancer survivors to exercise and shows simple exercises that they can do.
- This video shows simple exercises to strengthen your major muscle groups and boost your heart rate.
- This video explains the importance of exercise in cancer survivorship and offers recommendations about how to exercise safely and stick with a routine.
- This video explains how exercise can have positive effects on your health and offers recommendations about how to exercise safely and stick with it.
- This video explains exercise safety issues if you have lymphedema, cancer that spread to your bone osteoporosis, brain tumors, loss of sensation in your arms or legs, or low blood cell counts.
- This blog post that discusses what cancer survivors should know about exercise during and after treatment.
- This site from the American Cancer Society explains how you can stay active during and after cancer treatment.
Charts to Track Your Activity
|Day of the week||Activity and intensity||Minutes of exercise|
|Total for the week|
|Day of the week||Activity|
|Total days for the week|