This article explores evidence for the positive effects that exercise can have on surviving several types of cancer by answering these questions:
- Can exercise reduce the risk of cancer?
- Can exercise help tackle some of the side effects of cancer treatment?
- Can exercise improve your chances of surviving cancer?
- What sort of exercise are we talking about?
Can exercise reduce the risk of cancer?
Cancer Research UK has reviewed the evidence for the effects of exercise on various cancers, and its verdict is that physical activity reduces the risk of bowel cancer, breast cancer and womb cancer. However, exercise may also reduce the risk of other cancers, including prostate cancer and lung cancer.
Research published in 2021 in the journal Radiology and Oncology also provides strong scientific evidence for the effects of physical activity in reducing the risk of developing other types of cancer. The research found that ‘physical activity of moderate to vigorous intensity protects against colon and breast cancer, and probably against cancer at all other sites’.
Can exercise help tackle some of the side effects of cancer treatment?
Common side effects
People being treated for cancer can often suffer a range of physical symptoms arising from the treatment. These side effects can include:
- muscle wasting
- poorer balance and coordination
- difficulty focusing, reading and driving.
Physical and mental effects such as these can lead to a reduced quality of life and even to depression. This means that for someone with cancer exercise is not likely to be high on their list of immediate priorities.
Adequate rest is important, of course, and anyone with cancer should consult their doctor before beginning prolonged exercise.
However, if a patient can become motivated enough to exercise, and their doctor sees no problem with this, it seems that exercise can help reduce most of the harmful side effects.
Exercise can also have beneficial effects on Health Related Quality of Life (HRQoL). That’s the conclusion of a review of 93 studies with 7,435 patients. Researchers recommended that combining aerobic with resistance training before and after cancer treatment was the best option.
Exercise is the main nonpharmacological intervention [for people with cancer] for improving physical fitness, fatigue, and physical and psychological well-being.
Journal of Health and Sport Science 2023
Can exercise improve your chances of surviving cancer?
A systematic review and meta-analysis of 136 studies into physical activity and mortality in cancer survivors – published in JNCI Cancer Spectrum (Oxford Academic) in 2020 – concluded that ‘higher prediagnosis and postdiagnosis levels of PA (physical activity) were associated with improved survival outcomes for at least 11 cancer types, providing support for the global promotion of PA guidelines following cancer’.
What sort of exercise are we talking about?
The ASCO Post from the American Society of Clinical Oncology provides the following guidance:
- At least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day for at least 5 days a week is recommended (over and above usual daily activities).
- Combine aerobic with resistance exercises for the greatest benefits.
- Yoga can also help.
The UK Chief Medical Officers also provide clear guidelines for improving general health through regular physical activities.
Exercise is a well recognised as a powerful tool to help cope with cancer.
American Society of Clinical Oncology
Some examples of recommended exercises
- Aerobic exercises: swimming, cycling, brisk walking and dancing.
- Resistance exercises: weight training (e.g. with dumbells) and using your own body as resistance (as with sit-ups, push-ups or squats).
- Walking for Health groups are one practical option for cancer patients.
More benefits of regular exercise
Regular exercise appears to produce major improvements in quality of life, functional capacity, muscle strength, aerobic capacity, and overall emotional status, as well as to reduce fatigue, chemotherapy-induced nausea, dyspnea (shortness of breath) and memory loss.
Is more research needed?
Yes. For instance, researchers have suggested that areas needing further investigation include:
- Exercise ‘dose responses’: what levels of different kinds of exercise result in what kinds of health benefits?
- Identifying the beneficial effects of exercise on the immune responses in cancer survivors.
- The cost effectiveness of exercise approaches that can be tailored to individual patient needs – one size may not fit all.
Overall, the indications are that regular exercise following treatment for cancer has positive effects on functional and wellbeing outcomes.
The British Association of Sport and Exercise Science
- Exercise appears not only to reduce the risk of cancer, but also to help tackle some of the side effects of cancer treatment, as well as improving a person’s chances of surviving cancer.
- At least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise, at least 5 days a week, should normally be the target to work towards.
But check with your doctor first!
- A combination of aerobic exercises (such as swimming, cycling and walking) and resistance exercises (such as push-ups, sit-ups and squats or weight training) seems to produce the greatest health and wellbeing benefits. Yoga can help too.
It is never too late to start keeping fit.
Cancer Research UK
Reviewed and updated by Karen Rollins July 2023. Next Review date June 2027.