Fitness and the role it plays during cancer treatment and recovery

Being physically fit and exercising has many benefits for people with cancer, both during treatment as well as recovery.1

Being physically active during treatment can help reduce side-effects such as; anxiety, depression, tiredness, nausea and poor appetite.1

During recovery, exercise also offers a range of health benefits including improved cardiovascular health, as well as reducing the risk for development of type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis as well as offering a protective effect of cancer recurrence. 2,5

Exercise recommendations during and after cancer treatment

According to the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA), it is recommended that you participate in regular physical activity as soon as possible following your diagnosis (as your health allows).2

  • COSA exercise recommendations include both aerobic and resistance-based exercises:
    • At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week – such as jogging, swimming or cycling.2
    • Two to three sessions of moderate or high-intensity resistance exercise –such as lifting weights, and these sessions should target all of your major muscle groups.2

It is important that you speak to a specialist, such as an accredited physiotherapist or physiologist so that your exercise program can be tailored to your current level of fitness, whilst accommodating for your type of cancer treatment and prognosis.2

Benefits of exercise during cancer treatment and recovery

Your exercise program and goals during your cancer treatment will be based on a number of things including your type of cancer, treatment and potential side-effects, as well as your current fitness level.3

Engaging in an exercise and fitness program that is tailored to your individual needs will provide many benefits including;3

  • Management of stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms associated with cancer and treatment.
  • Improves muscle strength
  • Reduces tiredness and fatigue
  • May promote hunger if you are experiencing poor appetite or nausea
  • Reduces the risk of thrombosis (blood clots) in your legs by improving blood flow
  • Increases your feelings of self-worth and improves quality of life
  • Flexibility exercises improve range of motion, which can be reduced with some cancer treatments.4
  • Starting an exercise program early on in treatment can reduce the risk of developing, or reduce the effects of lymphoedema (swelling in parts of the body due to damage to the lymphatic system from some cancer treatments).1

When recovering from cancer, side-effects from treatment typically ease after a few weeks of treatment finishing, although it can take longer for some people.3

Over time, you should be able to gently increase your exercise and intensity to obtain maximum benefits including:3

  • Weight maintenance and muscle strength5
  • Increased cardiovascular health
  • Improved emotional wellbeing
  • Increased social interaction and connect
  • Increased energy levels
  • Offers a protective effect over cancer recurring2, 5

Frequently asked questions

What questions should I ask my health professionals before starting an exercise or fitness program?

Some important questions that you should ask your doctor or specialist before starting exercise include:1

  • Can I do any type of exercise, or are there some exercises I should avoid?
  • Are there any precautions you should take, if you have equipment relating to treatment attached to you (i.e. pumps for chemotherapy)?
  • Can you recommend a healthcare professional who specializes in exercise programs for people with cancer?
  • Am I able to be physically active whilst undergoing treatment?
  • Can I start exercising now, or do I need to have a tests/checkup first?
What should I be mindful of when exercising during treatment and recovery from cancer?

You should always listen to your body and discuss any concerns or treatment side-effects with your doctor before starting or continuing on an exercise program. It is common for your symptoms and general health to fluctuate during the treatment and recovery phase.

Some things to be mindful of when exercising include:1

  • Certain treatments and cancer types can reduce your immunity (the ability to fight infection). Avoiding shared spaces such as gym equipment, swimming pools and fitness classes may be needed during periods of very low immunity
  • Anaemia (low iron levels) is a common side-effect in cancer treatment, which can leave you feeling very tired. It is best to talk with your doctor about your iron levels before exercising
  • Symptoms of poor coordination and balance is common during treatment, so avoiding exercises that require these skills is important (such as cycling, running or lifting weights) so as to avoid injury
  • Reduced bone strength can occur in some hormone-based treatments (for prostate and breast cancers), therefore avoiding high impact exercises and sports (such as running or jumping) is important to avoid broken or fractured bones
  • Treatments such as radiation therapy can result in skin redness and soreness, therefore it is important to wear loose, comfortable clothing when exercising so as to avoid further irritation. Avoiding pools which are chlorinated is also recommended when skin is irritated


For a full list of references, click here.
  1. Cancer Council Victoria. (n.d). Exercise Overview. Retrieved on 4th April 2019 from
  2. Clinical Oncology Society of Australia. (2018). COSA position statement on exercise in cancer care. (2020). Retrieved on 10 May 2021 from
  3. American Cancer Society. (2014). Physical activity and the cancer patient. Retrieved on 4th April 2019 from
  4. Cancer Council Victoria. (n.d). Flexibility Exercises. Retrieved on 4th April 2019 from
  5. National Cancer Institute. (2017). Physical activity and cancer. Retrieved on 4th April 2019 from

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