Every four minutes, someone in Australia is diagnosed with cancer. Only 1 in 10 of those diagnosed will exercise enough during and after their treatment. But every one of those patients would benefit from exercise.
I’m part of Australia’s peak body representing health professionals who treat people with cancer, the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia. Today, we’re joining 25 other cancer organizations to call for exercise to be prescribed to all cancer patients, as part of routine cancer care.
Published in the Medical Journal of Australia, our plan is to incorporate exercise alongside surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy to help counteract the negative effects of cancer and its treatment.
What Are We Calling For?
Historically, the advice to cancer patients was to rest and to avoid activity. We now know this advice may be harmful to patients, and every person with cancer would benefit from exercise.
Most doctors and nurses agree exercise is beneficial, but don’t routinely prescribe exercise as part of their patients’ cancer treatment plan.
It is our position that all health professionals involved in the care of cancer patients should view and discuss exercise as a standard part of the cancer treatment plan; recommend that cancer patients adhere to exercise guidelines; and refer them to an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist with experience in cancer care.
Why Prescribe Exercise?
Cancer patients who exercise regularly experience fewer, and less severe, side effects from treatments. They also have a lower relative risk of cancer recurrence and a lower relative risk of dying from cancer.
If the effects of exercise could be encapsulated in a pill, it would be prescribed to every cancer patient worldwide and viewed as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment. If exercise were a pill, it would be demanded by cancer patients and prescribed by every cancer specialist.
Cancer and its treatment can have a devastating effect on people’s lives, causing serious health issues that compromise people’s physical and mental well-being.
Research shows that exercise can help cancer patients tolerate aggressive treatments, minimize the physical declines caused by cancer, counteract cancer-related fatigue, relieve mental distress, and improve quality of life.
When appropriately prescribed and monitored, exercise is safe for people with cancer and the risk of complications is relatively low.
Implementing exercise medicine as part of routine cancer care has the potential to not only change people’s lives but also save money. People with cancer who exercise have lower medical expenses and spend less time away from work.
What Exactly Should Be Prescribed?
Exercise specialists can prescribe exercise in a similar way to how doctors prescribe medications—by knowing how cancer impacts our health and understanding how certain exercises improve the structure and function of the body’s systems.
These individualized programs involve specific types of exercises, performed at precise intensities and volumes, based on a mechanism of action and dosage needed to counteract the negative effects of cancer.
The evidence-based guidelines recommend that people with cancer be as physically active as their current ability and conditions allow. For significant health benefits, they should aim to complete the following:
- at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise weekly (such as walking, jogging, cycling, swimming), and
- two to three resistance exercise sessions each week, involving moderate to vigorous intensity exercises and targeting the major muscle groups (such as weightlifting).
These recommendations should be tailored to the individual’s abilities, to minimize the risk of complications and maximize the benefits.
How Will Patients Fill the Prescription?
Getting this much exercise may seem out of reach for many people with cancer. But exercise specialists who have experience in cancer care can help. They’ll design an individual program based on the patient’s disease, how he or she has responded to treatment, and the anticipated trajectory of his or her health status.
Online directories can help patients find accredited exercise physiologists and physiotherapists practicing nearby. These services are eligible for subsidies through Medicare and private health insurance.
Or patients can opt for structured cancer-specific exercise medicine programs, such as EX-MED Cancer, which I lead. Such programs are designed to maximize the safety and effectiveness of exercise medicine for cancer patients.