Physical activity

Three key messages

  1. Exercise is an established treatment for cancer – it can help with the management of cancer and its recurrence.
  2. The sooner you start an exercise program, the greater the potential benefit.
  3. Your exercise program should include aerobic activity; flexibility/stretching; and strength training/resistance training.

Introduction

From time to time you might hear people refer to exercise as a silver bullet for health. Well, it’s not far from the truth. Exercise is a long-established treatment for heart disease and Type Two diabetes, and now the evidence shows we can add cancer to this list.

Exercise can reduce the number and severity of side effects and increase strength, balance and physical fitness. It improves mental health, can speed up your return to your usual activities, and improve your quality of life.

Not everyone feels up to starting an exercise program before or even during treatment, but all the latest evidence shows that exercise is medicine, that is, it can help with the management of cancer and also its recurrence. There are links between physical activity and cancer survival, including improving the immune system and suppressing cancer cell growth. Accredited Exercise Physiologists who are trained to work with cancer patients and have extensive clinical experience can tailor exercise programs for patients during radiation and/or chemotherapy treatment.

You should let your treating doctor know you are going to exercise and see if there are any precautions you should take, but for most people, getting any physical activity in the day is better than nothing at all.

There is no right or wrong time to start exercising if you have cancer. In general, the sooner you start an exercise program, the greater the potential benefit.  

Cancer Council’s Life Now Program offers many different forms of physical activity including exercise, yoga and tai chi.

For more information about Life Now, call 13 11 20 to talk to our Cancer Nurses and ask if there’s a suitable program near you.

What type of physical activity do I need to do to improve my health and fitness?

  • Aerobic activity – this activity increases your breathing rate and heart rate for a sustained amount of time to improve your circulatory fitness
  • Flexibility/Stretching –this increases the range of movement around the joints and reduces muscle soreness and tension
  • Strength training/Resistance training- this improves muscle strength and increases your metabolism

It is important to build up your exercise program slowly, including simple steps like walking five days a week and including some stretching; and then introducing some strength building exercises. This can be discussed with your doctor, an exercise physiologist, or with the Wellbeing after Cancer Nurse by submitting a Request a Wellbeing after Cancer Callback form.

Ten mental health benefits of exercise

  1. Reduce stress
    Working up a sweat can help manage physical and mental stress by increasing the concentration of norepinephrine in the brain - a chemical that can moderate the brain's stress response.
  2. Boost happy chemicals
    Exercise releases endorphins, which create feelings of happiness and euphoria. Studies have shown that exercise can even alleviate symptoms among the clinically depressed.
  3. Improve self–confidence
    Exercising can make you feel like a million bucks! Plenty of studies show that physical fitness can boost self-esteem and improve positive self-image.
  4. Tap into creativity
    A heart-pumping workout session can boost creativity for up to two hours afterwards.  
  5. Increase productivity
    Research shows that workers who take time for exercise on a regular basis are more productive and have more energy than their more sedentary peers.  
  6. Boost brain power
    Various studies have shown that cardiovascular exercise can create new brain cells and improve overall brain performance.  Studies also suggest that a tough workout increases levels of a brain-derived protein in the body, believed to help with decision making, higher thinking and learning.
  7. Alleviate anxiety
    Moderate-to-high intensity physical activity releases warm and fuzzy chemicals in the brain during and after your exercise session which can help to reduce anxiety.
  8. Promote relaxation
    Regular exercise promotes a good night sleep.  Moving around five to six hours before bedtime raises the body's core temperature. When the body temp drops back to normal a few hours later, it signals the body that it's time to sleep.
  9. Maximise memory
    Working out increases the production of cells in the brain that are responsible for memory and learning. It has been shown that running sprints improved vocabulary retention among healthy adults.  
  10. Prevent cognitive decline
    Working out, especially between age 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus - an important part of the brain for memory and learning.

Important links

The expert content on this page has been informed by Steve Pratt who is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Accredited Practising Dietitian who worked at Cancer Council WA for over 15 years. Over this time he has seen the growing importance of exercise for cancer prevention and managing the side effects of cancer treatment.