Can exercise help you survive cancer?

Can exercise reduce the risk of cancer? Can it help tackle some of the side effects of cancer treatment? Can it improve your chances of surviving cancer? What sort of exercise are we talking about?

Can exercise reduce the risk of cancer?

Cancer Research UK has reviewed the evidence. Its verdict is that physical activity reduces the risk of bowel cancer, breast cancer and womb cancer – and may also reduce the risk of other cancers, including prostate cancer and lung cancer.  

Can exercise help tackle some of the side effects of cancer treatment?

People being treated for cancer can suffer a range of physical symptoms, arising from the treatment. These can include.  

  • fatigue
  • anaemia
  • muscle wasting
  • reduced balance and coordination

They can also experience difficulty focusing, reading and driving. These physical and mental effects can lead to a reduced quality of life and even depression. This means exercise isn’t likely to be first thing on their mind.

Adequate rest is important, of course – and anyone with cancer should consult their doctor before beginning prolonged exercise.

However, if a patient can become motivated enough to exercise and their doctor sees no problem with this, it seems this can help reduce most of the harmful symptoms. It can also have beneficial effects on Health Related Quality of Life (HRQoL). That’s the conclusion of a review of 40 medical trials with 3,694 patients – although the researchers advise caution, due to differences in the way the different trials were conducted and interpreted. A 2017 review of published research came to a similar conclusion i.e. that exercise is safe and provides benefit in quality of life and in muscular and aerobic fitness for people with cancer both during and after treatment.

Can exercise improve your chances of surviving cancer?

There’s consistent evidence from 27 observational studies that physical activity is associated with reduced all-cause, breast cancer-specific, and colon cancer-specific mortality.

Macmillan Cancer agree that during and after cancer treatment – physical activity can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and mortality for some cancers, as well as reducing the risk of developing other long term conditions.

What sort of exercise are we talking about?

The ASCO Post from the American Society of Clinical Oncology, provides the following guidance:

  • At least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day is recommended (over and above usual daily activities)  -  for at least 5 days a week.
  • Combine both aerobic and resistance exercise for the greatest benefits.
  • Yoga can also help. 

Ongoing physical activity appears to produce major improvement in muscle strength, aerobic capacity, quality of life, functional capacity and overall emotional status – and to reduce fatigue, chemotherapy-induced nausea,  dyspnea (shortness of breath) and memory loss. 

Swimming, cycling, brisk walking and dancing are examples of aerobic exercise. Weight training (e.g. with dumbbells) and using your own body as resistance (as with sit ups, push ups or squats) are examples of resistance exercise.

In 2014 Macmillan Cancer reported that walking just one mile a day could save lives. Walking for Health groups are one practical option for cancer patients.  

Is more research needed?

Yes. For instance researchers have suggested that areas needing further investigation include:

  • Exercise dose responses (more research into how much, of different types of exercise, have what health benefits?).
  • Further research to identify the beneficial effects of exercise on the immune responses observed in cancer survivors.
  • The cost effectiveness of exercise approaches that can be tailored to individual patient needs – as one size may not fit all.

Having said this, overall the indications are that exercise following treatment for cancer has positive effects on functional and wellbeing outcomes.


  • Exercise appears to reduce the risk of cancer, to help tackle some of the side effects of cancer treatment and to improve your chances of surviving cancer.
  • Check with your doctor – but at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise, at least 5 days a week, should normally be the target to work towards.
  • A combination of aerobic exercise (like swimming, cycling and walking) and resistance exercise (e.g. push ups, sit ups and squats or weight training) seems to produce the greatest benefits – and Yoga can help too.
  • As Cancer Research UK advise – it is never too late to start keeping fit.  

Reviewed and updated by Karen Rollins August 2018. Next Review date August 2022.