“Every four minutes someone in Australia is diagnosed with cancer. Only one in ten of those diagnosed will exercise enough during and after their treatment. But every one of those patients would benefit from exercise.”
– Dr. Prue Cormie
(Clinical Researcher, Exercise Physiologist, & Chair of COSA Exercise Cancer guidelines committee)
Exercise in Cancer Care – The new kid on the block
It’s not a fun topic, but it’s one that can save lives if we talk about it and increase the understanding of its importance. Cancer treatments have been becoming more and more effective, with exercise being a relatively new addition and now included in the gold standard treatment.
The Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) made its position on the role of exercise in cancer care very clear in a recent directive stating:
“Exercise should be embedded as part of standard practice in cancer care and viewed as an adjunct therapy that helps counteract the adverse effects of cancer and its treatment.”
Previously, the advice to cancer patients was to rest and avoid activity, but we now know this is not good advice and every person with cancer would benefit from exercise medicine. COSA also called for all members of the multidisciplinary cancer team to promote physical activity to patients and recommend people with cancer adhere to exercise guidelines.
An ever-growing body of evidence has long supported the inclusion of exercise in cancer care, but huge progress was made when Australia’s national cancer organisation (COSA) issued the formal position statement in 2018 recommending exercise as part of cancer care, for all cancer patients.
Regular exercise before, during and after cancer treatment is not only a safe and effective therapy that can improve physical function and speed up your return to usual activities, but it can have a huge impact on treatment outcomes.
What are the Benefits of Exercise for Cancer?
We know exercise is a vital ingredient for anyone to achieve good health. For those with cancer, maintaining and improving health with exercise means the body is better equipped to fight cancer and withstand the effects of treatment. More specifically, exercise can play a large role in counteracting the adverse physical and psychological effects of cancer and its treatment such as:
- Cancer-related fatigue
- Cachexia (weakness & wasting of the body)
- Mental Health
- Cognitive changes
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Poor balance and coordination
These outcomes can increase the likelihood of completing the full treatment plan, improve recovery between and after treatments, and allow patients to maintain as much of their usual lifestyle as possible.
Exercise can also:
- Improve physical function
- Increase aerobic fitness & muscular strength
- Maintain or achieve a healthy weight
- Reduce depression & anxiety
- Increase likelihood of completing treatment
- Increase efficacy of treatment
- Counteract treatment related sexual dysfunction
- Provide new opportunities to meet people and socialise with others going through a similar journey
- Reduce risk of developing new cancers
- Reduce risk of developing other comorbidities (heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis)
- Provide protective effect against cancer recurrence
- Improve quality of life
What Exercise Should I Do for Cancer?
Anyone with cancer should avoid inactivity and return to normal daily activities as soon as possible following diagnosis (i.e. be as physically active as current abilities and conditions allow)
Those with cancer should progress towards and, once achieved, maintain participation in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise (e.g. walking, jogging, cycling, swimming) each week; and two to three resistance exercise (i.e. lifting weights) sessions each week involving moderate-to vigorous-intensity exercises targeting the major muscle groups
Of course, cancer and its treatment take a huge toll on the body and some days may be harder than others, but even a few minutes of light exercise is better than no exercise at all. If a structured exercise session seems like too much at times, keeping up with activities like housework, gardening or a walk before your coffee date are all great opportunities to get some physical activity in your day.
How Do I Know What Exercise Is Safe for Cancer?
It’s natural to have lots of questions or even feel anxious and uncertain about starting an exercise program after a cancer diagnosis. In general, regular exercise before, during and after cancer treatment is just as safe as it is for someone without cancer. That being said, exercise for any individual is safest and most effective when prescribed individually by a qualified health professional.
To ensure safety and maximise therapeutic effect, exercise should be prescribed and delivered under the direction of an Accredited Exercise Physiologist or physiotherapist with experience in cancer care. Exercise is medicine, so in the same way that an Oncologist prescribes medical treatment, an Exercise Physiologist prescribes exercise. They can develop an exercise program tailored to you, specific to your cancer, associated treatment, and treatment side effects. They know that not every day will be the same and understand your needs and capabilities will change throughout treatment. An accredited exercise physiologist has the expertise to adjust your program based on your current health status.