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Walking through cancer

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 do so daily, where possible.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, 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”. This is what makes walking different to running, which requires periods of being airborne, increasing the level of impact and risk of injury. For those looking for a low-impact, low-risk exercise during and after cancer; look no further than walking out of your front door. Put on your favourite podcast, invite one of your favourite people to join you or savour the time alone and feel the minutes fly-by.

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

Let's explore the reasons why walking is a great exercise option:

1) It’s a safe way to improve general fitness and health. 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.

2) 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, a supportive pair of shoes and a bottle of water. The rest is optional!

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

4) 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.

5) 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 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.

6) You’re in control! Walking is completely customisable. 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. 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.

In summary, walking is a versatile and safe place to start if you’re wanting to get into a routine that will help support your physical or mental health with and beyond cancer. Ready? Set. Walk!


Campbell KL, Winters-Stone KM, Wiskemann J, May AM, Schwartz AL, Courneya KS, Zucker DS, Matthews CE, Ligibel JA, Gerber LH, Morris GS, Patel AV, Hue TF, Perna FM and Schmitz KH. (2019) Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors: Consensus Statement from International Multidisciplinary Roundtable. Med Sci Sports Exerc; 51(11):2375-2390.

Coughlin S, Caplan L, Stone R and Stewart J. (2019) A review of home-based physical activity interventions for breast cancer survivors. Current Cancer Reports; 1(1):6-12.

Frensham LJ, Parfitt G and Dollman J. (2018) Effect of a 12-Week Online Walking Intervention on Health and Quality of Life in Cancer Survivors: A Quasi-Randomized Controlled Trial. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health; 15, 2081.

Mikkelson K, Stojanovska L, Polenakovic M, Bosevski M and Apostolopoulos V. (2017) Exercise and mental health. Maturitas; 106:48-56.

Tang M, Chiu H, Xu X, Kwok J, Cheung, D, Chen, C and Lin, C. (2019). Walking is more effective than yoga at reducing sleep disturbance in cancer patients: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 47.

Tsianakas V, Harris J, Ream E, Hemelrijck, Purushotham A, Mucci L, Green J, Fewster J and Armes J (2017) CanWalk: a feasibility study with embedded randomised controlled trial pilot of a walking intervention for people with recurrent or metastatic cancer. BMJ Open; 7(2).

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