Bowel cancer and exercise

Marie Murphy, former Irish Olympian, and consultant exercise and nutrition specialist, has done extensive research into the effect of exercise during and after treatment for cancer, and particularly for bowel cancer.

The research shows that exercise helps boost your immunity, which helps your recovery and reduces your chance of cancer recurring. So exercise along with proper nutrition and good sleep are essential to making a good recovery.

“The most important thing is to stay active both during treatment and after treatment, within the ability of the individual and how they are feeling,” says Marie.

Exercise will counteract the fatigue that most cancer patients feel during treatment. During treatment the amount of exercise is down to the individual and the energy levels that they have.

“If someone is enduring the side effects of their treatment, the last thing they may be thinking about is exercise, but if they are not moving they are not changing anything,” says Marie.

They key is to take it slowly and do the same level of exercise for three weeks before increasing how much you do. This could start at as little as five minutes a day. People do need to avoid anything that will over-exert the body and to protect their blood count.

The guidelines for the general population recommend that people do 2.5 hours’ exercise per week.

“For a person going through treatment, that seems like a marathon. So the idea is small amounts, 5 minutes first once a day, for three weeks; then twice a day, for three weeks; and then moving up to 10 minutes. Slowly build up,” says Marie.

In the long-term to prevent recurrence of cancer, research recommends that people do at least 2.5 hours a week. However, the pace you exercise at is very important and if you are very unfit, you will need to do more than 2.5 hours a week to get the protective effect. The slower your pace, the more time you will need to spend exercising to reap the same rewards.

For people with bowel cancer, the research has shown that if the individual with average fitness did one hour more than the 2.5 hours’ recommended it reduced recurrence of cancer by a further 6%.

Nutrition is equally important and this can be difficult because due to side-effects, people may find it hard to eat their daily allowance of calories, protein and other nutrients. They may need to take a protein supplement while they recover.

How to be active during bowel cancer treatment

Most cancer patients will experience fatigue and loss of energy during treatment, however, exercise can break this cycle!

  • Engage in low-intensity exercise at first, such as a slow walk around the block.
  • Avoid vigorous exercise when your blood count is low or if you are at risk of infection.
  • Be active when you feel your best (even for 5 or 10 minutes).

How to stay active after bowel cancer treatment

  • Gradually build up to moderate intensity for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
  • Moderate intensity activities (an activity that takes as much effort as a brisk walk) can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and help you live longer.
  • Start with light-intensity exercises and progress slowly.
  • Keep in mind that a low-to-moderate-intensity exercise may feel like a higher-intensity exercise following cancer treatment.

Before beginning an exercise program, talk with your doctor about your symptoms and treatment so that you can choose the physical activities that are best for you.

Other resources

If you are undergoing treatment for bowel cancer, this website has information on:

You can also download a copy of the free booklet, ‘Bowel Cancer: From diagnosis to recovery‘ here.

Bowel Cancer Booklet