Exercise for cancer survivors

We all know exercise and being physically active is important for us. Exercise improves our fitness and strength, reduces risk of disease and promotes positive mood and well-being.

Exercise is just as important for health even if you have been diagnosed with cancer. With more people now living with the long-term effects cancer and its associated treatments, it is important to know how exercise may affect your body and most importantly how it can be done safely.

In the past, people with cancer have been recommended to rest, as it was thought that exercise may be harmful and exacerbate fatigue in people who have undergone intensive treatment such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Over the past 15 years there has been mounting research to support the role of exercise in people with cancer and we now know that exercise is SAFE for cancer survivors when it is prescribed appropriately.

Benefits of exercise training include:

  • Improved physical function
  • Improved strength and muscle mass
  • Improved mood
  • Reduced fatigue
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness
  • Improved quality of life

There is now increasing evidence to support the role of exercise in reducing risk of death from cancer. A study published last year showed that people who completed over 2.5 hours per week of moderate intensity physical activity after diagnosis reduced their risk of death from cancer by up to 35%.

How much exercise is safe?

Current guidelines suggest people who have been diagnosed with cancer avoid being inactive and complete at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise per week. Moderate intensity is described as working hard enough to cause a slight but noticeable increase in breathing and heart rate (such as brisk walking or swimming). It is recommended that people undertake at least 2 days a week of strength training and 3 to 5 days a week of aerobic training. For people who are de-conditioned, for example those not used to exercise or undergoing treatment, it has been suggested to break down the exercise into shorter bouts of exercise.

Fatigue is a major issue for people with cancer and may influence people’s ability to do everyday tasks including exercise. A recent study was completed to review the effect of different exercise intensity and duration on fatigue and fitness levels and found that moderate intensity exercise was more effective for reducing fatigue and improving fitness than high intensity exercise.

However, there is not a ‘one size fits all approach’ to exercise. People who have different cancer types and treatments may have different symptoms and respond to exercise differently. It is important that exercise is prescribed by a suitably trained health professional such as a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist. Comprehensive cancer rehabilitation programs now exist where you can access exercise and education programs to assist cancer recovery.

Rehab options