Exercise is ‘best medicine’ and should be prescribed to every cancer patient: experts

Clinical research shows exercise can lower the risk of a patient's cancer coming back or dying from the disease, according to Australian researchers. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Exercise should be part of every cancer patient’s treatment, and if it’s not, it could actually be harmful, according to a team of Australia researchers.

The Clinical Oncology Society of Australia, endorsed by 25 other cancer organizations, launched a position statement about the role of exercise alongside surgery, chemotherapy or radiation in order to counteract the negative effects of cancer and its treatment.

It’s the first ever researcher-led push for exercise to be part of a cancer patient’s treatment.

Prue Cormie from the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia, lead author, said the position statement is based on “indisputable” evidence.

“Historically the advice to cancer patients was to rest and avoid activity,” Cormie wrote in the Conversation. “We now know this advice may be harmful to patients, and every person with cancer would benefit from exercise medicine.”

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Clinical research shows exercise can lower the risk of a patient’s cancer coming back or dying from the disease, according to the statement.

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The researchers recommend cancer patients be prescribed:

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, like walking, jogging, swimming and cycling, each week.
  • Two to three resistance exercises (lifting weights) each week.

A majority of people with cancer do not meet these exercise recommendations, however, the researchers said patients do express a desire to become and stay sufficiently active.

Therefore, exercise should be prescribed under the direction of an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist, the study suggested.

WATCH: Great exercise routine for men with prostate cancer

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Great exercise routine for men with prostate 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,” Cormie said.

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“Exercise is the best medicine someone with cancer can take in addition to their standard cancer treatments. That’s because we know now that people who exercise regularly experience fewer and less severe treatment side-effects; cancer-related fatigue, mental distress, quality of life.”

Studies already launched in Canada

Researchers in Canada have already undertaken studies and clinical trials about the benefits of exercise for cancer patients.

A 2013 University of Alberta study, for instance, found breast cancer patients who did 60 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week had a lower risk of recurrence of the disease and a longer survival.

In February, researchers from the University of Surrey and Royal Surrey County Hospital began investigating the impact of high intensity aerobic and resistance training combined with psychosocial support on men with prostate cancer.

Dr. Fred Saad, urologist-oncologist and researcher at the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre (CRCHUM), said he believes that physical exercise has a direct effect on cancer — as effective as drugs — for treating patients with prostate cancer, even in advanced stages of the disease.

The Canadian Cancer Society recommends physical activity, such as brisk walking, gardening and yoga, during cancer treatment, saying it helps reduce stress boosts energy levels and helps reduce a patient’s risk of cancer recurrence.

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“There is a fair bit of evidence that shows the benefit of being active during cancer treatment,” said Shawn Chirrey, a senior manager with the Canadian Cancer Society. “The message of the role it plays on survivorship is a more recent thing. But there’s been a fair bit of research on the topic.”

Chirrey said it’s still important to talk with your doctor before you start your exercise program.

“Even if are a cancer patient and have exercised before, it’s still good to talk with your physician,” he said. “There are a lot of individual factors at play.”

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