While it may be the farthest thing from the minds of its sufferers, Australian research has shown regular, moderate exercise can almost halve the risk of dying from cancer or from cancer coming back.
A review of more than 100 epidemiological and randomised studies involving 70,000 patients worldwide found that including exercise in treatment following a cancer diagnosis reduced cancer-specific mortality by up to 44 percent, all-cause mortality by up to 48 percent and cancer recurrence by up to 35 percent.
"This synthesis of research has told us that if cancer patients exercise regularly, it can be an effective medicine that can be prescribed to not only improve their health and wellbeing but also their longevity of life as well," lead researcher Professor Prue Cormie told HuffPost Australia.
Exercise has the potential to not only improve outcomes for individual patients but also improve the burden of the disease on society and on our health system.
Participants included adults diagnosed with any form of cancer, comprising mainly of those with breast cancer (66 percent), colorectal cancer (15 percent) and prostate cancer (14 percent).
According to the review results, those who exercised regularly also experienced less adverse side effects of treatment such as fatigue, functional decline and psychological distress.
"Exercise allows people to get back to work quickly, to engage with the people in their life. The effects are more widespread than those from a physiological standpoint," Cormie said.
"This (exercise) has the potential to not only improve outcomes for individual patients but also improve the burden of the disease on society and on our health system."
When we look at evidence-based guidelines to realise these significant health benefits, only around ten percent of cancer patients are engaging in a sufficient amount of exercise.
Cormie, from the Australian Catholic University's Institute for Health and Ageing, is pushing for exercise to be seen as an effective adjunct therapy in cancer treatment.
"This is of course not a replacement. But is not standard practice to have a prescription of exercise incorporated in a cancer treatment plan," Cormie said.
"When we look at evidence-based guidelines to realise these significant health benefits, only around ten percent of cancer patients are engaging in a sufficient amount of exercise."
Cormie recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise and two to three resistance exercises each week. That is a 30-minute brisk walk five days a week plus a few rounds of weights.
"It is a simple idea, and it doesn't cost a lot. It is a behaviour change, and there are a whole range of strategies that we know of from research and clinical practice that can be implemented to ensure it is achievable," Cormie said.
While the review adds to a growing pool of evidence that supports incorporating exercise into cancer care, what is less known are the reasons why.
"While we don't yet know exactly what drives this, we do know that exercise improves the structure and function of most bodily functions simultaneously. There are a range of potential factors that could influence this effect," Cormie said.
"One of those elements could be that exercise allows patients to physically tolerate greater doses of cancer treatments. It may normalise the cancer tumour micro environment to potentially increase the transport of cancer treatment to those cells and allow the treatments to be more effective."
For Cormie, future research must be directed towards understanding these drivers as well as the most effective forms of exercise for patients.
"We also need to know how we implement this within the healthcare system, and how to make sure that these services are available to patients both inside hospitals and cancer treatment facilities as well as in cancer-specific programs in the community."
An accredited physiologist with expertise in cancer treatment, among other specialties, can be found here.
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