Physical Activity and Cancer

HFE Tutor with student
Tutor with student

There are approximately 2 million people in the UK living with or beyond cancer, and if current trends continue, this figure is estimated to double within the next 20 years.

There is growing evidence that regular exercise and physical activity pre, post and during cancer can improve physiological function, psychological wellbeing, and reduce some of the side effects associated with the disease and treatments. More importantly, regular physical activity is also playing a significant role in helping to reduce the risk of cancer recurring, thus extending life expectancy once remission has been confirmed.

In a recent evidence-based review that was undertaken by Macmillan Cancer Support, it was found that there were significant increases in physiological function between active and non-active groups during and post-treatment. Some minor psychological improvements were also observed in the active group, the most notable of which included reduced anxiety and increased self esteem. Post treatment, the frequency and magnitude of those suffering from depression was also much less in the active group as opposed to the sedentary group.

It is common for cancer sufferers to experience significant levels of fatigue during and following their treatment. Patients typically lose muscular and cardiovascular fitness, which is exacerbated when the patient is sedentary. Traditionally, cancer patients have been advised to “take it easy” and “rest throughout the course of their treatment” and so unsurprisingly, most patients do experience a considerable decrease in their physical capabilities. This reduced physical capacity can contribute towards a “perpetual cycle of deteriorating function”, making it incredibly difficult to break. The psychological side effects of this cycle are also quite profound, and have been linked with adverse fluctuations in self esteem, confidence and anxiety.

An important finding from the review noted that there was a significant reduction in mortality rate and the recurrence from breast, prostate and colorectal cancers in those who remain active during their treatment, especially when they were previously active. The link with physical activity also reduced the likelihood of comorbidities, including CHD, strokes, diabetes and osteoporosis.

Although no specific physical activity guidelines exist for patients living with cancer, research has demonstrated that encouraging patients to gradually return to a normal level of physical activity would be beneficial. While this transition should be made gradually, and with an emphasis on low-moderate intensity activities, the ultimate goal should be to achieve the standard age appropriate guidelines, where there are no other complications or contraindications present.

In Summary:

  1. Physical activity is an important element of the treatment plan for cancer patients at all stages of their treatment
  2. Physical activity during treatment will improve physical capacity, or slow the physical decline, without increasing fatigue
  3. Physical activity post-treatment helps to re-establish, and in some cases enhance physical capacity and function
  4. Physical activity can reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and mortality for some cancers, and the likelihood of developing other chronic illnesses and diseases
  5. Following cancer, physical activity can help patients remain or become independent, and promotes psychological wellbeing 

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