7 Tips For Building An Exercise Habit After Cancer Treatment

The post below was written by Claire Munsie, Senior Exercise Physiologist at Perth You Can Centre.

5am gym sessions, 10km runs, becoming a gym junkie or a fitspo bunny might not be for everyone. However, regular, structured physical activity in some form should be! Committing to a regular exercise routine 5 - 7 days a week can sound daunting and possibly unachievable. But with a little hard work, persistence and patience, it is possible and it can certainly pay off.

Research has shown that exercise is a powerful tool in the treatment and prevention of a number of chronic diseases; it improves quality of life and has a direct positive relationship with health status. While decades ago it might have been acceptable to think that exercise after cancer treatment was unsafe and would be too physically taxing for patients, we thankfully now know this is NOT the case! If anything, exercise is more important for people treated for cancer due to the significant impact that cancer treatment has on physical and mental wellbeing both during and after treatment. Exercise has been shown to reduce some of the negative side effects of cancer and its treatment, such as fatigue, weight loss, muscle weakness, deconditioning, depression, anxiety and 'chemo brain.'

Current physical activity guidelines suggest all young people treated for cancer should complete 30-60 minutes of moderate physical activity on 5 or more days per week. Additionally, strength-based exercises should be included on 3 days per week. These recommendations have shown to improve health status and quality of life.

But where do you start and how do you build a habit? Research at University College London discovered that building a habit takes an average of 66 days. So committing to just over 2 months of some kind of physical activity every day will set you up to continue adopting this behaviour well into the future.

Here are some top tips on how to build an exercise habit:

1. Start small and work your way up

If exercise isn’t something that you have done in years, it’s best to start with a tolerable amount. It’s not realistic to think you can go from couch potato to marathon runner in one session. Begin with 5-10 minutes of exercise on 5 days of the week and slowly increase the duration and then intensity. Each week add 5-10 more minutes until you are meeting the 30 minutes per day on 5 days per week guideline.

2. Find something you like

Cycling, running or swimming might not be for everyone. Try out new activities to find things you genuinely enjoy. Even though a sunrise run along the beach might be a great Instagram post, if you don’t love it, you won’t keep doing it. Try out yoga, pilates, boot camps, water aerobics or team sports. Give just about anything a go until you find something you really love.

3. Have a plan, write it down and put it somewhere you can see it

Make yourself accountable and keep reminding yourself why this is important. Write down your goals for exercise and things to keep you motivated to keep giving it a go every day.

4. Make exercise a priority

Exercise has to be non-negotiable. Don’t aim to squeeze it in when you have time- , make time. What’s the point in having endured months or even years of gruelling cancer treatment if you don’t invest time in making you the healthiest and happiest you can be? You wouldn’t let your car go years without servicing it, don’t let your body go days without exercising it.

5. Exercise with a friend or in a group

Exercising with a friend or in a group makes you more accountable. Leaving your friend standing in the cold waiting for you when you have decided to stay in bed is a good reason to jump out of bed and get moving.

6. Exercise even on days when you feel tired

Cancer-related fatigue affects up to 90% of all cancer patients. Exercise has been shown to significantly reduce cancer-related fatigue in a number of cancer populations. On days when you are tired, commit to just 10 minutes. Walk out of the house down the road for 5 minutes, turn around and come back. If at the end of 5 minutes you are still tired then it’s time to rest. Otherwise, go for another lap!

7. Seek advice or help

Talk with your doctor and find an exercise physiologist or community based exercise programs through your local cancer council to seek the best advice for safe exercise practices.

Helpful links:


Claire Munsie is the Senior Exercise Physiologist at Perth You Can Centre.

Do you have any tips to add to this list? Share your experiences in the comments below!