Cancer and the role of physical activity

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

One in two males and one in every three females in Australia will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85. (1)

The role of physical activity in the management of Cancer has received a lot of press recently. Catalyst devoted a program to the topic earlier this year, which revealed convincing and accumulating evidence that, targeted exercise can help fight many forms of Cancer. “Appropriate exercise under professional supervision – before, during and after treatment seems to substantially improve your odds,” they reported. Exercise can also help alleviate some of the debilitating side effects such as significant loss of muscle mass, reduction in physical function and vitality. Memory loss and concentration, poor sleep patterns and reduced sensation in the peripheral limbs contributing to balance and co-ordination difficulties are also potential side effects. Exercise can play a major contribution in lessening all of these. (2)

Researchers at Edith Cowan University here in WA have conducted extensive studies revealing increasing evidence linking physical activity and Cancer survival.

A 25% reduction in the risk of developing of breast cancer over 73 studies (3), 10% reduction in prostate (4), 25% colon (5), and between 20-50% in lung cancer is evident (6). Emerging evidence in the prevention of bladder, renal, haematological and testicular cancers is also noted. ‘Exercise should not be seen as an alternative to chemotherapy, they observe, but rather a critical synergist medicine.’

The World Health Organisation estimates that 30% of Cancers could be modified or prevented by avoiding behavioural risk factors, including inactivity, diet, alcohol, excessive ultra violet exposure and smoking.

So what type of exercise, how often and how much is beneficial? Well the key message is that patients should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow. Some (activity) is better than none and more (to a point), is generally better.

Similarly to the general population, moderate cardiovascular exercise for at least 30 mins on 5 or more days of the week, or 20 minutes vigorous exercise 3 x a week is recommended. Resistance or weight training 2-3 times per week, including at least 6 exercises for the main muscle groups is also recommended.