Four types of exercise to do if you are living with cancer

Just 1 minute of exercise can make a difference. What are you waiting for?

International exercise guidelines for people living with cancer encourage the inclusion of four types of physical activity – cardio (aerobic), strength (resistance), balance and flexibility. Let’s look at each of these in turn.


1 Cardio (aerobic) exercise

Cardio exercise includes activities where you move in a rhythmic manner for a sustained period of time. These activities increase both your breathing and heart rates. Examples include walking, jogging, swimming, dancing and cycling. Remember, cardio activities don’t have to be gym or sports-based; even cleaning the house or gardening can count.

The latest exercise guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine and 17 partner organisations came out in October 2019. They recommend that adults should aim to get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio exercise three times a week (more on intensity below). Exercising in this way can help prevent cancer and treat related health issues .

If this is too much start with, try 5, 10 or 15 minutes of cardio exercise, for example walking at a moderate to quick pace, and do this two or three times a week.

When you’re ready to do more, build up the number of walks you do each week, then increase the length of each walk to 30 minutes by walking longer distances. When you are comfortable doing this, walk more briskly and/or include hill climbs in your route or walk faster to increase the level of intensity.


Exercise snacking: every little helps

There’s good news for busy people in the latest version of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

The new guidelines acknowledge that exercising for shorter periods of time (exercise snacking) can still deliver health benefits. “Move more and sit less” throughout the day is the headline message.

The more relaxed definition of what regular activity can be ties in with many commonly-used health messages, such as “use the stairs instead of the lift” or “get off the bus a stop earlier”. All small periods of activity now count towards the overall total (as long as they make your heart beat faster in the process).

This opens up exercise opportunities to include press ups against the kitchen worktop while the kettle boils, sit-to-stand exercises during advert breaks on the telly and squats before or after you sit down on the toilet.


Measuring intensity

The intensity – how hard you exercise – is an important aspect to think about. The easiest way to measure intensity during exercise is by using the ” talk test”:

  • If you are able to carry on a conversation but need to pause for breath from time-to-time as you speak, you are doing moderate-intensity activity.
  • If you can only provide one-word answers the activity is becoming more vigorous.
  • If you find it difficult to speak, this is vigorous activity.

Although vigorous intensity exercise will certainly get your heart rate up quickly (and according to the guidelines requires only 75 minutes per week to achieve the minimum required for good health), it is not recommend that you do this with this until you are coping with moderate-intensity exercise.

In the walking example, you need to walk fast enough so that you are breathing harder (moderate intensity) – but not so fast that you are completely out of breath and can’t speak in full sentences (vigorous intensity).


Resistance activity can increase the size of your muscles, make you stronger and increase your endurance. Having more muscle also boosts your metabolic rate, which means you’ll burn more calories even when your body is at rest.


2 Resistance exercise

This refers to any activity where you lift, push or pull against a resistance or force. Activities include those using resistance machines and weights, such as dumbbells and kettlebells; those using elastic resistance bands; and those using your own bodyweight. Again, household activities such as carrying and unpacking shopping can count as resistance exercise.

Resistance activity can increase the size of your muscles, make you stronger and increase your endurance. Having more muscle also boosts your metabolic rate, which means you’ll burn more calories even when your body is at rest.

According to the 2019 guidelines, adults should undertake at least two sessions of resistance training each week and rest for a minimum of two days between workouts. It is important to work all the major muscle groups of the body – the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms.

If you haven’t done resistance training before, talk to a fitness professional (for example a personal trainer or gym instructor) to learn about the correct way to do the exercises. This will reduce your risk of injury. If you know what you’re doing, take it easy at first and don’t try to lift/move the weights that you did before your treatment.

In the gym, one set of 10 to 12 repetitions, working muscles to the point of fatigue (where it’s very difficult to complete the final repetition), is usually sufficient for each muscle group. Once you get stronger you can increase the amount of weight you move and the number of sets you do.

Remember, you can also do resistance exercises at home either with hand weights, objects such as food tins, resistance (elastic) bands or even your own bodyweight.


3 Balance exercises

Having good balance is very important for your overall fitness because it increases your ability to undertake other activities. Balance may be an issue because of the side effects of medications and treatments, your age, altered neurological functioning (for example after a stroke) or muscle and ligament injuries. You may not be fully aware that you may have weak balance until you try specific balance exercises.

Most physical activities require a certain level of balance. For example, you need to have basic balancing abilities to be able to walk. However, doing activities that challenge your centre of gravity – like standing on one leg while doing arm exercises – help your body and brain to work together to keep you stable. Strong core muscles also allow you to control your posture and stability.

Balance exercises can be done every day or as often as you like. You could combine balance, strength and flexibility exercises into one session or try specific activities, such as Tai chi and yoga.


4 Flexibility exercises

Flexibility is the ability to move your joints through pain-free ranges of motion. It is an often neglected but important part of a healthy exercise programme. Stretching improves flexibility and in doing so can prevent injury, promote relaxation and improve your performance and posture. It helps to stretch at least five times a week to preserve or increase the range of motion of your joints. Although it doesn’t take much effort, stretching is an activity that can make you feel a lot better.