Exercise And Cancer Recovery: The Benefits Of Physical Activity

Did you know that 1 in 3 men and 1 in 4 women in Australia will be directly affected by cancer by the age of 75? In fact, there are approximately 108,000 new cancer cases each year in Australia, representing a major public health concern. In addition, a lack of or reduction in physical activity has been reported as a key risk factor for some cancers. The positive news is that physical activity is beneficial during and following cancer treatment, due to improved psychosocial and physical outcomes, improved compliance with treatment regimes, reduced impact of disease symptoms, and survival benefits, all stemming from the benefits of regular exercise.

The side effects of cancer and its associated treatments are numerous, and particularly affect one’s biological functions (musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and cardiopulmonary systems). These side effects may last for years following treatment, with cancer sufferers at an increased risk of developing other chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis (Eyre et al. 2004). Particularly debilitating are the side effects of physical and mental fatigue, resulting from prolonged and, at times, aggressive treatments.

Given the effects of cancer, exercise plays an important role in treatment and recovery with many benefits to the patient, both for reducing cancer symptoms and for improving the rate of recovery from treatment. Exercises to improve muscle mass and muscle strength are key components of providing health-positive benefits in cancer treatment. The research has demonstrated that preservation or improvements in muscle mass and muscle strength have resulted in reduced side effects such as nausea, fatigue, and pain (Hayes et al. 2009). Furthermore, exercise-induced improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness, physical function, activity levels, and range of motion have been associated with:

  • Reduced intensity of symptoms reported (e.g., nausea, fatigue, pain);
  • Decreased duration of hospitalisation;
  • Improvements in psychological and emotional wellbeing; and
  • Decreased feelings of depression and anxiety.

The literature has also shown that improvements in body image, self-esteem, and mood are all positive outcomes for cancer sufferers that participate in regular physical activity.

How much exercise is needed to result in cancer treatment and recovery benefits?

It has been recommended that during and following cancer treatment, aerobic-based exercise should be completed at least 3-5 days per week, for at least 20-30 mins at a moderate intensity (Burnham & Wilcox 2002). Aerobic exercise should be completed in conjunction with resistance-based exercises, which should be undertaken 1-3 days per week, and should include 6-10 exercises.

It is important to remember that each exercise program needs to be individually-tailored, to minimise the risk of injury and maximise each individual’s health benefits (Rajarajeswaran & Vishnupriya 2009). While reduced physical activity during and following cancer treatment can exacerbate symptoms and contribute to the loss of function, a consistent commitment to exercise results in enduring benefits to function, psychological factors, and quality of life for cancer patients.

(Image sources: Heart Health Journey, The Guardian, WebMD)