On cancer treatment? Here’s how to exercise safely


If you’re currently a cancer patient, regular weekly exercise will help you live longer, and if you’re a cancer survivor, it will help prevent a recurrence of the disease. In both cases, getting active each week will improve your quality of life.

Listen to top advice from a dietician, a physiotherapist and biokineticist on how to stay healthy – with a focus on exercise - during and post-cancer treatment here.

“Cancer can be a debilitating disease that robs you of your energy and drive, and although it may not feel like it before you start exercising, being active – even in small ways – really can improve your clinical outcomes as well as your quality of life,” says Vitality biokineticist Mari Leach.

Research has shown that exercise both during and after cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery has significant benefits to recovery, and helps to reduce the side-effects of the treatment,” Leach adds. Here are her guidelines on how to exercise during and after your cancer treatment.

Tips to start exercising with, or after, cancer
  • First of all, make sure you have consent from your oncologist or surgeon to add to, or maintain, your exercise programme.
  • Make sure your doctor is aware of all the medications you take and what kind exercise you plan on doing.
  • How much and how hard you exercise depends purely on your own level of fatigue, your current fitness level and your reaction to your cancer treatment.
  • Make sure you start slowly, and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your exercise.
  • Allow for enough recovery time afterwards and pepper your exercise session with breaks.
  • Be prepared to adjust your training goals to accommodate for side effects, so depending on when your treatment days are, either choose a lower-intensity exercise or take a rest day.
  • Find an activity that you enjoy – one that will make you look forward to your next session.
  • Walking is a good starting point for anyone. Invite others to exercise with you, as it will help with keeping one another accountable and with distracting your mind on days when you’re not feeling your best. You can also find tips to get started here.

“Aerobic exercises will help you with fatigue, and strength training will help to reduce muscle mass loss,” says Leach. Around 50% of people with cancer experience these symptoms.

Recommendations for aerobic training
  • Try to get in 20 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity a day, for most days of the week. This can be done in one session or broken up into 10-minute sessions throughout the day. It might be easier to do several, shorter spread-out sessions while receiving cancer treatment.
  • If you’ve been inactive before your cancer diagnosis, rather start with shorter sessions of 10 to 15 minutes, and gradually build up to longer sessions by adding five minutes to a session at a time.
  • If you’re on any medication that’s affecting your heart rate, then use a ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion’ scale to determine the intensity. It should be around “somewhat hard.” This may vary, depending on what kind of treatment you receive, your level of discomfort and pain, and any feelings of nausea and fatigue.
  • Make sure you rest well after each session.
  • Don’t exercise if you have a fever, the risk of bleeding, lots of pain and nausea, abnormal blood counts or anemia.
  • If radiation therapy makes your skin sensitive, make sure you wear exercise clothes that will keep help your skin dry and avoid irritation.
Recommendations for strength training:
  • Surgery, radiation or other treatments might prevent you from doing strength training. Visit a physiotherapist to help you restore a full range of movement before you start strength training.
  • Start strength training by doing 5 to 15 repetitions for 1 to 3 sets
  • Gradually increase the amount of reps and sets as you get stronger.
  • Be mindful and avoid holding your breath when lifting weights, especially if you have high blood pressure.
  • Remember, it’s normal to experience some muscle stiffness and soreness after strength or weight training.

Leach concludes, “For anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, it’s important to focus on exercises that will help you maintain your muscle strength, endurance and overall functional abilities. If you don’t have an exercise programme, chat to a biokineticist, who can help with one that is personalised and doable. And don’t get discouraged – starting small is fine, and any physical activity is always better than none.”

All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for educational and informational objectives only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help to empower cancer patients and their families by promoting a better understanding of a cancer diagnosis. The views expressed by all of the contributing healthcare providers are their independent, professional medical opinions, aimed at supporting patients. These views do not necessarily constitute the views of Discovery Health.

Severe illness can be life-changing. Discovery is here for you

At Discovery, we understand that an illness like cancer affects many aspects of your life. If you're a Discovery Health Medical Scheme member who is diagnosed with cancer, you are covered by a comprehensive Oncology Programme. You'll also have access to a palliative care programme, which offers unlimited cover for approved care at home.

To protect you financially, Discovery Life offers the best dread disease product in the market for cancer cover, as awarded by the Independent Clinical Oncology Network. Our award-winning LifeTime Max 200% Severe Illness Benefit offers coverage across the full spectrum of severities and coverage for remission of a cancer. Contact us to learn more.

Whether you stroll, step or sprint – check out a parkrun near you!

Did you know that people of all ages and fitness levels can participate in a parkrun? These events are weekly timed 5 km walks or runs hosted at local venues around the country - and entry is free! They're great opportunities to get active with others in your community, or just to enjoy a beautiful Saturday morning in a park

Plus, Discovery Vitality members 18 years and older can earn up to 300 Vitality points for participating in a parkrun. So sign up on the parkrun website and remember to link your parkrun profile to your Vitality policy if you're a member. Find a parkrun event near you, and get your weekend off to a wonderful start!

Track your health with a fitness device

There's no shortage of health and fitness devices on offer that can help monitor all kinds of health data to keep you on track. Get up to 25% off a wide range of devices with Vitality's HealthyGear or HealthyCare benefits, and link your device to Vitality so you can earn fitness points on the go.

But there's more - soon you can get up to 75% cash back on a new fitness device with the Vitality Active Rewards Device Booster benefit, which launches next year. So sign up and get tech-savvy to start improving your health!

The Discovery Health Medical Scheme is an independent non-profit entity governed by the Medical Schemes Act, and regulated by the Council for Medical Schemes. It is administered by a separate company, Discovery Health (Pty) Ltd, an authorised financial services provider.

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