Cancer and Exercise

1 in 2 Australians will develop cancer by the age of 85. Odds are you've been touched by it or someone close to you has. Recently, Catalyst on the ABC released a story about how exercise is significantly improving health outcomes for patients currently undergoing treatment for cancer. 

A landmark study that is being carried out at the Exercise Medicine Research Institute in Perth has begun to show promising scientific evidence and anecdotal stories about how exercise can improve the well being of cancer patients. In this study patients have a prescribed exercise program under the guidance of an Exercise Physiologist on the same days as they underwent chemo or radiation treatment. Soon we may see Exercise Physiology gyms or clinics right next to where patients receive chemo treatment. 

So how is exercise helping these patients?

Typically, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy can see a 10-15% decline in muscle mass. But in the 38 patients who have gone through the exercise program, there was no muscle wastage - in some cases there was muscle mass gained. Maintaining or increasing your muscle mass can have a range of health benefits:

  • Help regulate blood glucose levels and decrease risk of Type 2 Diabetes
  • Have an impact on bone health and decrease your risk of osteoporosis
  • Improve Physical function and quality of life
  • Improve mental health and decrease levels of depression and anxiety
  • Help maintain a healthy weight. During treatment we often want to avoid loosing weight and a lot of the time this loss comes from a loss of muscle mass
  • Maintain strength and endurance

Not only does this improve the health and function of a patient but it improves their capability to complete the full course of chemotherapy. These results are important because there is no pharmaceutical intervention that can stop the decline in muscle mass - only highly targeted, prescribed exercise has been shown to do so. 

Anecdotal stories about patients feeling less fatigued and nauseous as a result of doing exercise during chemotherapy or radiation have also been found in the study. 

A collection of research papers have been able to illustrate the mechanism by which exercise works to help fight cancer. One likely explanation is the increase of blood flow that comes with doing exercise. Tumours have a poor blood supply, but exercise can increase the flow of chemotherapy chemicals to get inside the tumour, where it's needed. Another explanation is that exercise can up-regulate the immune system so that it's better at fighting cancer, by the increased release of a chemical called interleukin 6. 

Where does exercise physiology fit in?

If you are currently undergoing cancer treatment or recovering from treatment, it is important to see an exercise physiologist about addressing your exercise needs. Exercise physiologists have a greater depth of knowledge surrounding cancer: how the treatments can affect exercise programming, as well as what type of exercise you need. 

It is important to know that the type of cancer you have will determine what type of exercise is most appropriate for your health needs. For example, a study from 2009 found that in men who had Prostate Cancer and were undergoing androgen-deprivation therapy were at risk of significant bone loss and higher chance of increased visceral fat around the organs. In this study jumping exercise and resistance training were the best type of exercise to maintain bone mass.

Talk to us today about seeing one of our Accredited Exercise Physiologists to make a specific and individualized exercise program that will result in the most health benefit for you. Please contact us on 0419 287 631 or

If you are interested in the full story from Catalyst check out the link here: