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Cancer and Exercise: Opening the Door to Prevention, Management and Long-term Recovery


In Australia today 63% of the population are considered overweight, with the rates of Obesity continuing to increase across all populations at an alarming rate.  Falling outside of healthy weight ranges increases your risk of developing numerous cancers as well many countless cardiovascular, Musculoskeletal and Metabolic diseases.

Research has demonstrated a link between weight-loss and a decreased risk of several cancers including breast cancer after menopause. It is this link between obesity and cancer which allows exercise to have a preventative measure on various cancers.

Cancer patients have been advised to rest, take it easy and minimise physical exertion in previous decades and at times is still the case today.  However recent research has been demonstrating that exercise is not only safe but also very effective in improving quality of life, function, physical health and management of side-effects.

Long term recovery following cancer treatment/removal is also positively affected by exercise interventions. Commonly reported side-effects of cancer treatment and cancer survival such as body composition, fatigue, anxiety, depression, self-esteem, happiness, decrease in muscle strength and reduced cardiovascular fitness are all improved by regular participation in exercise.

Research is continuing to provide greater detail and information on the importance of maintaining regular physical activity through cancer treatment and recovery stages. Individuals who are living with advanced cancer can also benefit from the introduction of appropriate physical activity. Exercise in populations with advanced cancer can improve physical ability, mental wellbeing and manage individual side effects.

Introducing exercise to individuals at any stage of the cancer journey need to be suitably assessed by treating specialists and referred to an exercise specialist such as an Accredited Exercise Physiologist. Involving physiologists will ensure that treatment is clinically relevant and safe to perform.

Exercise needs to be:

1. Safe: Appropriate assessments and monitoring of blood pressures, heath conditions, and fatigue levels, time of day, associated signs and symptoms related to radiation/chemotherapy treatment, lymphedema and list goes on. Each patient will have individualised needs and conditions which need careful monitoring to ensure patient safety and wellbeing.

2. Intentional: Exercise needs to be intentional in order to be effective in cancer prevention, management and long term recovery. Incidental exercise such as walking around the shops or cleaning the house is great but doesn’t count as intentional exercise.

3. Purposeful: Exercise needs to be in sync with the individual’s needs and wants. Setting SMART goals is crucial in ensuring exercise prescription is purposeful.

4. Specific: Prescribed exercise needs to be specific to each individual patient and the type of cancer the patient has been diagnosed with. Every person is different and every cancer has a different set of treatment outcomes, goals and side-effects. These factors mean that individuals should receive comprehensive assessments to objectively guide and justify exercise prescription.

To conclude this brief overview of the relationship between cancer and exercise, it is important to note the following points. Poor health and obesity directly increases your risk of several types of cancer. Patients who have been diagnosed with cancer at any stage of the journey greatly benefit from safe, specific, purposeful and intentional exercise prescription. Cancer and the various treatment types have various side-effects which can often be successfully managed and at times prevented by the correct exercise program. Exercise is a potent medication for cancer sufferers with very little risk and nil/minimal negative side-effects when prescribed effectively by an exercise specialist.

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