Exercise tips for those with cancer

Friday 31 May, 2013

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On this page: Warm-up ι Training ι Aerobic exercises ι Resistance exercises ι Flexibility exercises ι Pelvic floor exercises ι Cool down ι Reviewers


It's important to warm-up at the start of an exercise session. Warming up helps to get you going and reduces your risk of injury. After the warm-up your muscles are warm and loose, and your heart rate is slightly higher than at rest.

A warm-up should include 5 to 10 minutes of low-intensity aerobic work mixed with some light stretching. Walking outside or using the indoor equipment are good warm-up activities. If you're going to do some weights, it's a good idea to use light weights in your warm-up. A couple of lighter sets prepare the muscles and joints for the exercises to come.


Training is the part of an exercise program when the work is done. Different types of training have specific effects on your body. A well-rounded weekly exercise program should include a variety of activities from the three types of exercise:

  1. aerobic exercises
  2. resistance exercises
  3. flexibility exercises.

Aerobic exercises

Aerobic exercises use large muscle groups and cause your heart rate to rise during the exercise. Aerobic training improves heart and lung fitness and makes strenuous tasks easier. Examples include walking, cycling and swimming. Mowing the lawn or digging in the garden can also be beneficial.

Everyone should aim for 30 minutes of low to moderate aerobic exercise, on most days of the week. This can be continuous or you can combine a few shorter sessions of around 10 minutes each.

Exercise at a level you're comfortable with, but try to vary the duration and intensity. Exercise intensity refers to how hard your body is working during physical activity, and is described as low, moderate or vigorous.

Adults should aim for at least 2½ hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, or at least 1 hour of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week. This is a goal to work towards steadily – remember that some exercise is better than none. Choose activities that you enjoy, and try new activities to keep you motivated.

For extra health benefits, people should aim for up to 5 hours a week of moderate-intensity exercise, or 2½ hours a week of vigorous exercise, or do an equal combination of both.

Resistance exercises

Resistance exercises use weights to increase muscle strength and endurance. It's also called weight training or strength training. The benefits of a resistance (or weight) training program include:

  • increased muscle function and strength
  • improved body composition
  • increased muscle mass
  • increased bone mass and bone mineral density.

Resistance training can be done using:

  • your own body weight – such as push-ups or squats
  • free weights – such as dumbbells or barbells
  • weight machines – devices that have adjustable seats with handles attached to either weights or hydraulics
  • elastic resistance – these are like giant rubber bands that provide resistance when stretched. 


Proper technique is essential as incorrect technique can be harmful. Follow instructions closely, and stop immediately if you experience pain.

  • Resistance exercises should be performed 1-3 times (sessions) each week, on alternative days.
  • Complete one to four sets of six to nine different exercises each session.
  • Choose exercises that target the major functional muscles of the arms, legs and trunk. Each set should include 6-12 repetitions of the movement. Rest for 60 to 90 seconds between sets.

Once you are comfortable with the program try to (in this order):

  • increase the number of repetitions, from 6 to 12
  • increase the number of sets, from 1-3
  • each time a set is added reduce the number of repetitions back to six
  • increase the load or resistance and reduce the number of repetitions and sets.

See our page of suggested resistance exercises.

Flexibility exercises

Flexibility exercises (stretches) lengthen muscles and tendons. Stretching improves or maintains the flexibility and strength of joints and muscles. Joint and muscle flexibility is reduced by some cancer treatments and naturally as we get older. Regular stretching helps to delay any reduction in flexibility and overcome stiffness.

Try to stretch three to four times each week. Complete two to four sets of four to six different stretches. Include stretches for arm, leg and trunk flexibility. Hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.

See our page of suggested flexibility stretches

Pelvic floor exercises

Your pelvic floor muscles span the bottom of your pelvis and support your bowel and bladder, plus your uterus if you're a woman. As well as providing support, strong pelvic floor muscles are important for control of urination and faeces, normal sexual function and stability of the abdomen and spine.

Like other muscles, your pelvic floor can become weak. Factors that can contribute to pelvic floor weakness or damage, include: age, childbirth, straining on the toilet (constipation), obesity, chronic cough, heavy lifting and abdominal or pelvic surgery. See a physiotherapist or continence advisor before doing pelvic floor exercises if you:

  • have had recent pelvic or abdominal surgery
  • have problems with urine or faeces leaking when coughing, sneezing, laughing or exercising
  • need to go to the toilet urgently
  • have difficulty controlling bowel movements and wind
  • feel like you haven't emptied your bowel
  • have dragging, heaviness or a vaginal bulge
  • lack of sexual sensation.

How to identify your pelvic floor muscles

You can feel your pelvic floor muscles working when you stop your urine stream midway through emptying your bladder. Try stopping the flow for a couple of seconds to identify the pelvic muscles.

Another way is to feel the muscles you use when you imagine that you're stopping the flow of urine and holding in wind (flatus). This can be done standing, sitting or lying. 

How to exercise your pelvic floor muscles

Pelvic floor muscles exercises can be done standing, sitting or lying down. Start by relaxing all of your pelvic floor and abdominal (tummy) muscles. Squeeze and hold your pelvic floor muscles while you continue to breathe normally.

Try and hold the contraction for up to 10 seconds. Repeat the exercise up to 10 times, with a 10 to 20 seconds rest between contractions.

Do it at different times throughout each day to improve the strength of your pelvic floor muscles. It's important you have a good technique when you're doing pelvic floor muscle exercises. If your technique is poor, the exercise may be ineffective or you may risk injury. Remember these points:

  • Don't hold your breath.
  • Don't tighten your tummy above the belly button. If your technique is correct, you may notice some tensing or flattening of the tummy below the belly button.
  • Don't try too hard. You may end up contracting the muscles around the pelvic floor. Try changing positions if you can't feel your pelvic floor muscles lifting and squeezing. 

Cool down

Cooling down is just as important as warming up. The cool down allows your heart rate and blood pressure to gently return to normal. Also, a slow cool down helps your body and muscles lose the heat gained during the activity.

A cool down should involve 5 to 10 minutes of relaxed activity and/or light stretching.

If you've just finished an aerobic exercise session, slow walking or cycling is the best way to cool down. If you've done resistance training, light stretching is the best way to cool down.

Reviewed by: Dr Prue Cormie, Senior Research Fellow, Edith Cowan University Health and Wellness Institute WA; Steve Pratt, Nutrition and Physical Activity Manager, Cancer Council WA; Kate Aigner, Cancer Information Consultant, Cancer Council ACT; Simone Guise, Exercise Physiologist, Cancer Council WA; Christine Hygonnet, Education & Information, Cancer Council SA; Dr Amanda Horden, Bayside Healthy Living, VIC; Jenny Mothoneos, Publishing Editor, Cancer Council NSW; and Andrew Murnane, Exercise Physiologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC.

Updated: 31 May, 2013