Exercise and Cancer

Cancer ExerciseCancer

Cancer describes a disease in which abnormal cells multiply and divide without control. Cells in the body form tissue and organs that typically aid in growth and healing in the body. However, during cancer, cell death and replacement do not occur normally allowing tumours to grow in once healthy tissue, or for some cancers, accumulating a build-up of abnormal cells in the blood stream. There are over 100 different types of cancer with prostate cancer, bowel cancer (colon and rectal cancers), breast cancer, melanoma and lung cancer accounting for approximately 60% of cancers diagnosed in Australia.

While surgical removal of cancer remains the primary treatment for most cancers, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and other drug treatments are also frequently used as primary or adjunct treatments. Advances in treatment have led to more effective therapies. However, treatment-related side effects are still common and may persist for long-term survivors. Some of these may include weight gain/loss, fatigue, reduced bone mineral density and muscle mass, neuropathy, mood disorders, incontinence and lymphoedema.

Exercise and cancer prevention

Research has shown strong evidence that exercise plays an important role in the prevention of cancer, especially breast, colorectal and endometrial cancer. Emerging evidence shows exercise is associated with a reduced risk of other cancers such as prostate, lung and ovarian cancer.

Why is exercise important for cancer survivors?

Cancer survivors can participate in exercise both during and after treatment, with emerging evidence indicating that exercise after diagnosis may improve long-term survival rates for breast and colon cancer. The benefits for exercise during and after treatment are:

Improve/ Preserve Reduce
Muscle strength, mass and power
Physical function
Range of motion
Immune function
Chemotherapy completion rates
Body image, mood and self-esteem
Duration of hospitalisation
Psychological and emotional stress
Depression and anxiety
Number and severity of symptoms and side effects (e.g. fatigue, pain, nausea)


What type of exercise is best?

Exercise must be individualised according to a range of factors including exercise history, previous and planned cancer treatment, disease and treatment-related risk factors; the presence and severity of symptoms in addition to the client’s goals, barriers to exercise and personal likes. Overall the goal is to meet the physical activity guidelines recommended for the general population. However, after surgery and during treatment, these guidelines may be unrealistic. Here a gradual introduction of physical activity or return to activities of daily living is more appropriate. To achieve this, the below exercise goals can be implemented:

  • Limiting sedentary behaviours, such as sitting or lying down
  • Maintaining or gradually returning to usual activities of daily living
  • Gradually introducing planned, aerobic-based exercise such as walking, cycling or swimming.
  • Including 2 sessions per week of resistance-based exercise for the major muscle groups.

To help achieve these goals an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) can help to design an individualised exercise program that incorporates the many variables that effect an individual’s participation in exercise both during and after cancer treatment. They will know what level of exercise to start with and when and how it should be progressed. An AEP’s professional support can ensure exercise is done safely, particularly for people experiencing fluctuating treatment-related side effects and new side effects, those who have little or no history of exercising, those with suppressed immune systems and those at increased risk of cardiovascular events or fracture. An AEP can help address common barriers to exercising during and after cancer treatment and provide exercise modification when needed.

Tips to remain active

  • Avoid inactivity and progress exercise gradually.
  • Understand why being active during and following cancer treatment is important.
  • Recognise your barriers to exercise and find solutions to overcome these.
  • Goal-setting is important – you should plan both short-term and long-term goals.

If you are undergoing cancer treatment or have had previous treatment and would like some assistance with returning or continuing exercise, call the clinic on 9674 5596 to book in your initial exercise physiology consult or email me at kristy@inspiredphysio.com.au for more information.