5 facts about cancer and physio guided exercise

Exercise is increasingly recognized as being a vital part of both promoting health and reducing risk of cancer, but also in better managing treatment and prognosis.

Cancer is recognized as a chronic disease and is the leading cause of “disease burden” in Australia.  Around 134 000 people were diagnosed with cancer in 2017 with the most common types being breast (women), colorectal, prostate (men) and melanoma.  Survival rates are improving, but not for all cancers, and 3 out of every 10 Australian deaths are due to cancer.

1. Exercise may improve survival and prevent recurrence.

Recent research has demonstrated exercise can counteract the side effects of cancer and its associated treaments.  In addition, a recent systematic review found patients who exercised after a cancer diagnosis had a lower risk of dying from cancer and of having their cancer recur after treatment, in comparison to patients who performed no or less exercise. 

This is thought to be because exercise;

  • Improves physical fitness leading to improved tolerance to oncology treatment, meaning patients can have more treatment, or improved recovery from surgery with fewer complications.
  • stimulates the immune and endocrine (hormone) systems, both of which effect tumour growth.  

Exercise needs to be embedded into routine oncology care, but until we can get the health insurers to act, each of us can do our part to improve outcomes for our loved ones.

2. Exercise is the number one treatment for cancer related fatigue.

Cancer related fatigue (CRF) is one of the most prevalent and troublesome side effects of cancer treatment, reported by up to 96% of patients on adjuvant therapy. CRF is a persistent, debilitating and overwhelming feeling of exhaustion which cannot be explained by other means or relieved by rest or sleep.

Exercise of at least moderate intensity is the most effective treatment to manage CRF, so is more effective than medication or psychological treatments.  

3. People with advanced cancer can (and want to) exercise

Improvements to cancer treatment means that many people with advanced cancer will live many months to years with the disease.  People with cancer can experience symptoms such as fatigue, pain, shortness of breath and loss of physical fitness and function – all of which are improved by exercise!  

The biggest area of improvement with exercise is in fitness and reducing decline in function.

A combination of strength exercise and aerobic training is the best, enabling people with even advanced cancer  to live well.

4. People diagnosed with cancer should aim to complete moderate intensity exercise, building up to 150 minutes per week.

The Clinical Oncology Society of Australia released a position statement in 2018 encouraging an individualized exercise program of up to 150 minutes per week as part of routine cancer care.  Even high intensity training seems appropriate for some people after primary chemo or radiation therapy is completed.  Aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling and swimming is most beneficial for treating fatigue, and impact training such as jumping and skipping is best for preventing bone loss.

5. Exercise is safe for people with lymphedema

Lymphoedema is the retention of fluid in the tissues, appearing as swelling, resulting from a damaged lymphatic system.  Cancer treatment often involves damage to the lymphatics from surgery, removal of lymph nodes, or an increase in fluid load.  

One in five women with breast cancer will develop lymphedema, so it is a common side effect of treatment.  Exercise was long thought to be a problem for lymphoedema, but a big study published in 2016 found that exercise did not make lymphedema worse. In women with breast cancer, progressive strength training made huge improvements in arm strength without worsening lymphedema, which is so important for long term function.

Cancer is such a common disease, and has huge impacts on the quality of life for people both undergoing treatment and for years afterwards. Exercise is a critical part of ongoing health for all people with cancer, and for the rest of us as a way to help reduce our risk of cancer.

Vital Core physiotherapy is committed to helping all of our community move and feel better regardless of the age or stage of life. We have highly experienced and skilled physio’s and friendly, supportive and efficient reception staff. With our goal focused assessments and management plan approach to treatment we can make a difference to how a patient with cancer feels and moves. Our therapeutic physio guided exercise classes complement all at home treatment plans. Have a look at our

Regardless of what cancer it is, physio guided exercise can make an enormous difference to a person’s quality of life.


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