Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research

Exercise eases depression and anxiety in cancer patients

Targeted exercise programs for older men with prostate cancer are emerging as a crucial therapy to ease long-standing depression, anxiety and psychological distress.

New ACU research is investigating how targeted exercise therapy programs for prostate cancer patients can significantly help to alleviate mental health issues.

Leading exercise oncology expert Associate Professor Prue Cormie, from the Mary Mackillop Institute for Health Research, said early results of the exercise study were promising.

“We know that if the effects of exercise could be captured in a pill, this pill would be prescribed to every cancer patient worldwide but it’s really amazing to hear first-hand about how the exercise therapy program has totally changed someone’s life,” Professor Cormie said.

“Some of the men are saying that they have never felt better and that is fantastic for us to hear.”

Men with prostate cancer experience increased rates of mental health issues with 40 per cent reporting ongoing psychological distress.

“They are twice as likely to experience depression, and two to four times at greater risk of suicide as men of a similar age without prostate cancer,” she said.

“Yet these guys don’t usually ask for help and they don’t have a high uptake of supportive care services like breast cancer patients do. Men with the highest levels of distress are the least likely to ask for help and engage with health services.”

Under the program, prostate cancer patients follow an individual exercise plan for 60 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday over a 12-week period.

“This program is not focused on having a mental health issue, it is about being physically and mentally healthy and counteracting the negative effects of prostate cancer through exercise.”

Prostate cancer kills more than 3000 men in Australia every year. It is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men – with more men dying of prostate cancer than women of breast cancer each year.

There is already 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.

“Based on what the science tells us, exercise is the best medicine someone can take outside their standard treatment,” she said.

“It can reverse treatment-related side effects, increase quality of life and there is strong data to show it can lower the relative risk of dying and reduce relapse – now we want to take it a step further to use exercise as a strategy to counteract mental health issues in men.”

She is looking to recruit 100 men with prostate cancer, aged over 60, to expand the exercise trial. Exercise clinics are located in Fitzroy, Coburg, Hawthorn, Caulfield, Sunshine and Shepparton.

For more information about taking part, please email ExerciseOncology@acu.edu.au or call 03 9230 8268.

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