Exercise & Getting Active

Whether you’re a gym rat, couch potato or something in between, chances are cancer has had a significant impact on your fitness. Many people find it difficult to get or stay active both during treatment and well after treatment ends. It can be hard ‘getting back into it,’ let alone knowing where to start.

The truth is, regular exercise may be the single most important factor in improving health and wellbeing- particularly for those who have been through cancer. The information here is all about helping you work out what regular exercise means to you and how to make it a realistic priority in your life, whether your goal is to compete in a triathlon or be able to do everyday things like washing the dishes without feeling totally wiped out.


Exercise can play an important role in the treatment of a number of chronic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression and cancer.


We all know exercise is good for you, but it can also help you feel good, too. Exercise benefits every single part of the body, including the mind. It has also been shown to aid recovery and help manage the short and long term effects of cancer and its treatment. In fact, exercise actually helps many of the issues that can make getting active a challenge after treatment, such as fatigue, pain, heart/lung function or stiff/weak joints and muscles.

Regular exercise also lowers the risk of developing some cancers in the future, along with chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.


Exercise improves sleep and sleep quality


  • helps you deal with emotional ups and downs and feel better about yourself
  • reduces symptoms and lowers risk of anxiety and depression

Exercise gives you more energy and actually reduces fatigue

Exercise increases strength and flexibility, which can help reduce joint and other forms of chronic pain


  • increases muscle strength and endurance
  • improves flexibility and mobility

Exercise improves balance and helps to prevent falls

Exercise helps achieve or maintain a healthy body weight


  • helps heal tissues and organs damaged by treatment
  • helps keep bones strong
  • helps improve heart and lung function

Exercise lowers your risk of developing some secondary cancers and chronic illnesses like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure


Exercise is anything that gets your body moving in a way that gets your heart rate up and/or challenges your muscles. Activities like running, biking, swimming or going to the gym are examples that often come to mind, but don’t forget about things you may consider as hobbies or just for fun (e.g. dancing, skateboarding, hiking, horseback riding). Yoga, pilates and even quick walking are also great forms of exercise.

Keep in mind that regardless of symptoms, circumstances or fitness level, many activities can be modified in a way that will work for you (or steps can be taken to get you there), so think more about what you enjoy and less about what you think you can do.


Exercise is different from physical activity in that it is planned, structured and involves a purposeful goal relating to fitness or other health benefits. Physical activity doesn’t get your heart rate up in the same way and includes things we often think of as ‘incidental exercise’, such as walking the dog, taking the stairs instead of the lift or getting off the bus a stop or two early. It’s still great to do these things as moving your body as often as possible is what it’s all about, but exercise is what helps maximise the benefits of getting active for health and wellbeing. Even if you’re not there yet, you will be with time (and maybe a little bit of help).

A balanced exercise routine includes:

  • aerobic training (heart and lungs);
  • strength/resistance training (muscles and bones); and
  • flexibility training (muscles and joints).

Each element is equally important as they work together to deliver the range of benefits regular exercise can provide. Many activities incorporate two or all three of these elements, so it’s easy to include them all in a routine.


Post-treatment health guidelines recommend that people exercise 5 times per week for 30 minutes each time.

If this feels out of reach right now, don’t be discouraged as you are not alone- only around half of young people who have been through cancer are getting enough exercise post-treatment. However, research also shows that in addition to all the benefits mentioned above, young people who exercise regularly after treatment report less fatigue and better quality of life, so it’s a goal worth working towards.

Start slowly and gradually increase the amount and intensity over time. You could also try breaking that 30 minutes of exercise up into 5, 10 or 15 minute blocks across the day instead of doing it all at once. Aim for moderate intensity, which is when your heart rate and breathing have increased to the point where you can still talk comfortably, but not sing (the ‘talk test’).


Whether you’re just starting to think about getting active or are ready to start a new activity or program, it’s a really good idea to see your GP- particularly if you’ve recently finished treatment. They can help you form a plan, address any challenges or limitations and link you in with local supports and services.

Cancer and its treatment can impact on bone strength, heart and lung function and other body systems in ways that may make some forms of exercise unsafe, so it’s really important to check with your GP or other health care professional to rule out any concerns.


  • Identify your ‘why’. What are your goals or motivation for exercise? It could be about reducing treatment effects, getting back to particular activities, improving certain aspects of your physical or mental health or your fitness overall. Set small, achievable goals that build on one another to help keep you focused and motivated.
  • Identify your ‘how’. Think about what activities you enjoy, your current fitness level and what you have access to. Remember that this doesn’t have to mean expensive gym memberships or equipment! Consider whether you prefer activities you can do alone or in a group. If you aren’t sure, try out a few different activities or classes, check out videos online, and see what inspires you. Finding something you enjoy is critical to keeping it up.
  • Seek professional help. See your GP in the first instance- their role in supporting whole-person health and wellbeing makes them an excellent resource when it comes to fitness and exercise. They can also check with your treating (hospital) team about any concerns either of you may have, and help identify local supports and services. You may also find it helpful to see a specialised physiotherapist or exercise physiologist who can design a plan specific to your needs.


  • Focus on how achieving your goal will make your life better. What outcome do you want and why? (e.g. not ‘improve strength’ but ‘improve strength so I can...’)
  • Make the goal specific by attaching a number and deadline (e.g. ‘improve strength by doing X for the next Y months so I can...’). Make sure these details are appropriate and realistic by talking to your GP or an exercise physiologist first.
  • Set some smaller goals on the way that will contribute to your ability to achieve your main goal (or help you adjust it if needed) and boost confidence as you go. Again, it’s worth talking to a professional to help work out what’s safe and appropriate for where you are at and what you want to achieve. If you’re just starting out, begin with something you feel is easy and uncomplicated to chalk up those early wins (e.g. drink an extra glass of water each day or go for a 10 minute walk twice a week for the next two weeks).

Finally, remember that goals change and life happens, and that’s ok. It’s not about perfection, but taking steps in a positive direction.


While it’s important to start by seeing your GP and/or an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist specialising in cancer for information and advice tailored to your personal circumstances, you may also wish to contact the following organisations about any cancer- or youth-specific exercise supports, services or programs they offer.

  • your local Youth Cancer Service (some YCS have an exercise physiologist on staff)
  • your local/treating hospital (check with the oncology, rehabilitation or physiotherapy and exercise physiology units)
  • local Cancer Council
  • local community health service

Some examples of the kinds of programs that may be available in your area include:

  • Pinc and Steel - a range of exercise programs and services for men, women and young people with cancer across Australia
  • EX-MED Cancer - a Melbourne-based AEP-supervised exercise program for people who have/had cancer delivered in local fitness centres


It’s easy to find excuses for avoiding exercise, and the effects of cancer and its treatment can make it even harder to get moving and stay motivated. Below are some tips and tricks for getting (and staying) on track:

  • Talk to your GP or an exercise physiologist to help you plan and get off to a great start.
  • Set small, achievable goals and celebrate your successes.
  • Start slow and gradually increase the time and intensity of activity as fitness improves.
  • Consistency is key. Short periods of activity on most days of the week are far more beneficial than the occasional gruelling workout.
  • Schedule time for exercise like you would any other appointment, and plan it around your higher energy times to help combat fatigue.
  • Experiment with ways of keeping yourself focused and motivated to find what works best for you- it could be keeping a training diary or recording progress via a phone app, exercising with a friend, or signing up for a class or group program.
  • Remember that exercise actually helps many of the issues that can make getting active a challenge after treatment.
Moving your body regularly is what it’s all about, so if a structured program seems too hard right now, start small, do what you can (e.g. walking a block or two instead of parking out front, gentle exercises when you’re watching tv), and build from there.


Causing moderate stress to the body is necessary to benefit from exercise, but if you experience any of the following, stop and seek medical advice:

  • Chest pain
  • Excessive shortness of breath
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Persistent joint or muscle pain
  • Persistent fatigue


There is a wealth of information online about exercise and getting active, but it’s important to make sure that your sources are trustworthy and specific to your circumstances. Seek out information from cancer organisations such as Macmillan Cancer Support (UK) and the Cancer Council (Aus) in the first instance to make sure it’s relevant to people with a cancer experience.

Information, advice and programs found on general health and fitness websites, in magazines, etc may also be relevant, but it’s important to discuss this with your GP or other health care provider first to ensure it is safe and appropriate for you.

Advice From Clinicians
Advice From Young People