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Cancer and Exercise!

Published: July 7, 2021

Cancer sucks - and unfortuantely, we will most likely know someone, or develop cancer at some point. But there is a growing bank of evidence to say that exercise is an important part of the management, and recovery from cancer!

Causes of Cancer


  • Damage to DNA of cells leading to structurally abnormal cells that then replicate in an uncontrolled manner. The normal process of cells is for them to divide, replicate and repair. If a carcinogen activates a cell it may divide and try and repair itself but doesn’t repair properly, causing mutation. Then when it replicates again it can replicate the error; this process continues and the cells can grow uncontrollably. A cancerous tumor is an uncontrolled growth.
  • May be a result of:
    • Radiation (UV, nuclear, electromagnectic)
    • Chemicals
    • Hormones
    • Immune system
    • Viral Infections
    • Genetics
    • Aging

Risk Factors

  • Unhealthy diet (35% of all cancers)
  • Tobacco use (30% of all cancers)
  • Alcohol use (3-4% of all cancer)
  • Reproductive factors
  • Unsafe sex
  • Environment factors
  • Family History
  • Physical inactivity and obesity

Why exercise when you have cancer?

Recent research suggests that exercise benefits most people both during and after cancer treatment. It can help manage some of the common side effects of treatment, speed up your return to your usual activities, and improve your quality of life. The evidence also shows there is little risk of exercise causing harm if care is taken and professional exercise advice is followed closely; this is why it is important to consult an accredited exercise physiologist. Accredited exercise physiologists are experts in treating people with chronic health conditions with safe and best evidence based exercise. For some cancers, exercise may even improve treatment outcomes.

Exercise benefits:

  • Colorectual cancer: exercise can help waste pass through more quickly, reducing contact with cancer causing agents
  • It can help digestion and reduce constipation
  • Breast cancer: high activity levels may lower the level of oestrogen in the body
  • Exercise can help people cope with cancer treatment. Rest isn’t always ideal for those who are having cancer treatment
  • Exercise can increase energy levels and reduce fatigue
  • For some survivors on chemotherapy, exercise can reduce nausea and vomiting
  • Exercise can increase strength, flexibility and heart and lung function and circulation
  • Exercise can improve balance and mobility
  • Help you maintain or achieve a healthy weight
  • Exercise can improve mood, help you cope with stress, anxiety and depression
  • Reduce the risk of long term muscle wastage and prevent osteoporosis
  • There is growing evidence to suggest that regular exercise after cancer diagnosis can reduce the chance of the cancer coming back, particularly for early breast cancer and people who have been treated for early stage colorectal cancer.

From the ESSA Position Stand : Optimising cancer outcomes through exercise. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 12 (2009)428-434:

Preservation or improvements of exercise during or after cancer treatment:

  • Muscle mass, strength and power
  • Cardiorespiratory fitness
  • Physical function
  • Physical activity levels
  • Range of motion
  • Immune function
  • Chemotherapy completion rates
  • Body image, self esteem and mood

Reductions following exercise during or after cancer treatment:

  • Number of symptoms, and side-effects reported, such as nausea, fatigue and pain
  • Intensity of symptoms reported
  • Duration of hospitalisation
  • Psychological and emotional stress
  • Depression and anxiety

If you have cancer, or know someone who does, exercise should be a part of the treatment regime. If you have any questions, please call us on 95801985 and speak to Brendan (Certified Cancer rehabilitation physiotherapist) or our exercise physiologist Yas regarding the benefits of exercise and rehabilitation.