5 mins. read

The benefits of walking after chemo and radiation therapy

It’s a low-impact exercise that's key to your mental health, and it's free

An image of two people walking across a bridge, the camera is looking up so you can see their footprints

Key takeaways

  • Walking benefits those living with cancer: although a low-impact form of exercise, it offers cardio-vascular and respiratory fitness.
  • Little and often: a brisk walk 5 days a week, for 30 minutes (Campbell et al, 2019) is recommended.
  • It’s under your control: you can personalise walking by starting small and building on your routine.

For those looking for a low-impact, low-risk exercise during and after cancer, look no further than walking out your front door. Put on a podcast, invite one of your favourite people to join you or savour the time alone while you clock up the steps.

We spoke to physiotherapist and Perci Professional Hannah Leach about the benefits of walking after chemo, while living with cancer or in recovery.

Walking is a safe way to improve general fitness and health

Did you know the average person walks 65,000 miles in their lifetime? That’s the same as walking around the Earth three times. The human body is designed to walk and it is essential that we aim to optimise this movement daily. 

“Walk and be happy; walk and be healthy”

Charles Dickens

For most people living with and beyond cancer, exercise recommendations are the same as the general population: 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. This can be achieved with a brisk walk 5 days a week, for 30 minutes (Campbell et al, 2019).

Walking means “to move along by putting one foot in front of the other, allowing each foot to touch the floor before lifting the next” (Cambridge Dictionary). This is what makes walking different to running, which requires periods of being airborne, increasing the level of impact and risk of injury.

So what are some of the benefits of walking for someone with cancer?

Walking and cancer: the benefits after and during chemo

Walking is known to have many health benefits, including cardio-vascular and respiratory fitness. Frensham et al (2018) found that a 12-week walking programme, with or without online support, showed promise for improving overall health outcomes for cancer survivors. Similarly, Tsianakas et al (2017) showed that a 24 week walking programme for people with advanced cancer, is an accessible and tolerable way of improving quality of life and health outcomes.

An image of someone walking through a park on a sunny day. Only the bottom half of their legs are visible wearing trainers and leggings
Improve your general fitness and health through walking

It’s affordable

A systematic review by Coughlin et al (2019) found that walking programmes are an effective, affordable way for people with breast cancer to increase their physical activity. All you need is comfortable clothing and a supportive pair of shoes. The rest is optional!

It can help with sleep

Exercise can help improve sleep quality. Tang et al. (2019) found that moderate-intensity walking was more effective than yoga to improve sleeping disturbance in cancer patients.

It can reduce fatigue

If cancer treatment is causing fatigue, then getting into a walking routine may help minimise this difficult symptom. Huang et al. (2019) found that a 12 week walking programme improved fatigue for breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

It can improve mental health

The link between exercise and mental health is well established. Research suggests exercise has a positive impact on mental health, through biochemical and physiological mechanisms such as the production of endorphins and reduction of inflammatory processes that cause mood disorders (Mikkleson et al, 2017). Exercise can also impact mental health positively through psychological mechanisms, such as improved self-efficacy and distraction therapy (Mikkleson et al, 2017). For these reasons, getting out into nature and walking around can be a powerful tool to help lift your mood.

You’re in control

Walking is a completely personalisable type of exercise. You can choose everything from the route, to the speed and distance.

Start small and build up gradually as you feel able to. Aim for consistency, walking little and often to stay active. Once you are walking as part of your routine, you can introduce challenges. For example, taking a route with a hill, trying different styles of walking or increasing your distance.

All in all, walking is a versatile and safe exercise if you want to get into a routine that will help support your physical or mental health with and beyond cancer. Ready? Set. Walk!

If you are experiencing difficulty walking after chemo, read more about how physiotherapy can help with muscle and joint pain after treatment.

Find out more about Hannah Leach and her availability for physiotherapy.

While we have ensured that every article is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to one of our healthcare professionals or your primary healthcare team.

Campbell KL, Winters-Stone KM, Wiskemann J, May AM, et al. “Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors: Consensus Statement from International Multidisciplinary Roundtable”. Nov 2019: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31626055/

Coughlin S, Caplan L, Stone R and Stewart J. “A review of home-based physical activity interventions for breast cancer survivors”. Nov 2019: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6878898/

Frensham LJ, Parfitt G and Dollman J. “Effect of a 12-Week Online Walking Intervention on Health and Quality of Life in Cancer Survivors: A Quasi-Randomized Controlled Trial”. Sep 2018: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30248943/

Mikkelson K, Stojanovska L, Polenakovic M, Bosevski M and Apostolopoulos  V. “Exercise and mental health”. Dec 2017: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29150166/

Tang M, Chiu H, Xu X, Kwok J, Cheung, D, Chen, C and Lin, C. “Walking is more effective than yoga at reducing sleep disturbance in cancer patients: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials”. May 2019

Tsianakas V, Harris J, Ream E, Hemelrijck, et al. “CanWalk: a feasibility study with embedded randomised controlled trial pilot of a walking intervention for people with recurrent or metastatic cancer”. Feb 2017: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/2/e013719