Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research

Exercise is the best medicine for cancer patients

ACU’s Prue Cormie has led the national push for cancer patients to be prescribed exercise medicine in a dramatic change to treatment practices in Australia.

In a world first research-led call for exercise to be prescribed as a vital part of cancer treatment, 25 leading Australian cancer organisations and health experts have called for targeted exercise programs to be embedded in standard cancer care as an urgent priority.

“Evidence shows that withholding exercise from cancer patients is harmful,” Associate Professor Cormie, the lead author of the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) position statement on exercise and cancer care, said.

“Based on what the science tells us exercise is the best medicine people with cancer can take, in addition to their cancer treatments, to reverse treatment related side-effects, slow the progression of their cancer, increase quality of life and improve chances of survival.”

The COSA position statement recommends all people with cancer should attempt to do two to three resistance sessions a week and embark on at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, cycling or swimming.

Endorsed by health heavyweights such as the Medical Oncology Group of Australia, Cancer Council Australia, Exercise and Sports Science Australia and the Royal Australian College of Physicians, it also calls on all health professionals treating cancer patients to:

  • Discuss exercise as a part of their cancer treatment plan
  • Prescribe exercise to all people with cancer
  • Refer patients to an exercise physiologist and/or physiotherapist with experience in cancer care.

Gone are the days of wrapping cancer patients in “cotton wool”, according to David Speakman, Chief Medical Officer at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

“Our attitudes to treating cancer, what it takes to give people their best chance at survival, have to change. All cancer patients will benefit from an exercise prescription,” Dr Speakman said.

Associate Professor Cormie said if the benefits of exercise could be turned into a pill it would be touted as a breakthrough in cancer treatment.

“It would be demanded by patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist and subsidised by government,” she said.

“We know exercise is a medicine that works alongside mainstream treatment to help cancer patients feel better and increase their chance of survival so we can no longer stand by and accept such high levels of inactivity when the evidence of what we can do is right in front of us.”

Cancer affects one in two Australians with one person diagnosed every four minutes.

Nicole Cooper, 33, experienced the life-changing benefits of incorporating exercise into her cancer treatment plan after being diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer last year.

“I started with a non-operable, life ending cancer and that’s changed radically for me,” she said. “When I received a terminal cancer diagnosis, I was prescribed two potentially lifesaving cancer treatments – chemotherapy and exercise. A year later, I am in remission, having taken just as much exercise as I have chemotherapy.”

The COSA position statement builds on a significant body of evidence about the positive impact exercise has on cancer – with ACU research showing the risk of dying may be reduced by nearly half with regular brisk walking and lifting moderate weights.

Professor Cormie led a recent review of more than 100 studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology that found mortality rates among those who regularly exercised fell 28 to 44 per cent.

She was instrumental in launching the Australian first EX-MED Cancer program, a free exercise program for cancer patients designed to help with the side effects of treatment, increase quality of life and improve survival.

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