It is no surprise that physical activity is a key to good health, but exercise is especially important for cancer survivors. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone, including cancer survivors, gets 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week, as well as two sessions of strength training per week.

However, research presented in April 2014 at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting suggests that only one in 10 cancer survivors meet these recommendations. The study looked at 2,333 responses from cancer survivors in the U.S. who took part in the 2010 National Health Interview Survey.

Researchers found that survivors who met the CDC guidelines reported overall improved quality of life, including better physical and mental health and decreased levels of fatigue, compared with those who didn’t meet the guidelines, says Anees B. Chagpar, a study co-author and a surgical oncologist and director of the Breast Center at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven in Connecticut. A 2012 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, which reviewed 45 studies published over 60 years, supported these benefits, in addition to reporting findings that daily physical activity can help those with a history of cancer, particularly breast and colorectal cancer, live longer.

Tips for Being More Active

Follow exercise recommendations and start slow.

If you’re looking to become more active, Nancy Campbell, a clinical exercise physiologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, recommends first checking with your health care team to see if you have any treatment-related restrictions. Once you’ve gotten the OK, she suggests incorporating movement and enjoyable exercise into your everyday routine.

“Get a pedometer,” says Campbell. “They’re inexpensive, and [getting one] can be incredibly motivating.” She recommends using the technology to see how many steps you take in an average day and setting goals to increase that number gradually. In addition, if you have a smartphone, you can test some free pedometer mobile applications, including Map My Walk and Moves.

Don’t forget to incorporate at least two sessions of strength training each week. These exercises can be as simple as stretching with a resistance band or light weights, which can help you maintain and build muscle strength. For those new to strength training, Campbell recommends working with a trainer or physical therapist who has experience with cancer survivors. You can find a trainer certified to work with cancer survivors through the American College of Sports Medicine.

Above all, Campbell says be kind to yourself: “Your body went through a lot. … Give yourself permission to ease back into things. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or can’t do what you used to be able to do.”

Chagpar says that survivors can meet the physical activity guidelines in various ways. One option is to work out 60 minutes two to three times a week. Another is to incorporate brisk 10-minute walks into one’s day.

“Try to get physical activity every day and then build up to meeting [the CDC] guidelines,” says Chagpar, who stresses that changes in habits, such as parking the car far away from an entrance or taking the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator, can also have an impact.