Improving the Odds: Can Exercise Increase My Life Span?

Kate Williams Cancer Survival, Exercise for Cancer, Exercise Oncology, Exercise Physiology, News

We freely admit this headline was designed to grab your attention. After all, wouldn’t it be great if we could prescribe you a ‘pill’ that could help reduce your risk of death, without the side effects of other treatments; that in fact gave you positive side effects (such as improved fitness, enhanced energy and reduced pain)?

Well, yes. But can we actually definitively say that exercise does keep cancer at bay? Let’s turn to the evidence.

A recent review of more than 100 high-quality studies and over 68,000 cancer patients showed those who exercised more often and intensely had a significantly lower risk of death from cancer (28-44%), death from all causes (25-48%) and risk of cancer recurrence (21-35%). We like those numbers!

However this research is unfortunately limited in it’s self-reporting nature: we cannot conclude whether exercise behaviour is in fact slowing cancer progression, or rather whether more active patients who are less restricted by severe disease may be simply reporting better outcomes. Also while several cancer types (mainly breast, colorectal and prostate) were put under the microscope in these investigations, many other tumour streams are still lacking in quality studies when it comes to exercise. This means we are still in the dark when it comes to the degree of the effect of exercise not just on cancer type, but also disease stage and treatment category.

So where does this leave us?

1. Firstly – and we can’t highlight this enough – exercise is not a cancer panacea. That is, it will not cure cancer.

2. However it is now standard advice is Australia that exercise be included alongside your primary type of treatment, given:

– It can help you feel a lot better during treatment, enhance your recovery afterwards and improve your general long-term health prospects

– It just might improve your odds of keeping the C away, but at this stage we just don’t have the evidence to categorically prove it (but watch this space!)

– When appropriately prescribed and progressed, it certainly won’t do you any harm (there’s nothing to lose!)

To summarise, exercise should not replace your traditional forms of treatment, rather complement them. In other words, think of exercise as the Robin to your chemo/radiation/other treatment’s Batman. Now that’s a sick-kick worth employing.

Cormie, P, Zopf, E, Zhang, X, et al. 2017, ‘The impact of exercise on cancer mortality, recurrence, and treatment-related adverse effects’, American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 39, no. 1, pp


Cormie, P, Atkinson, M, Bucci, L, et al. 2018, ‘Clinical Oncology Society of Australia position statement on exercise in cancer care’, Med J Aust, Vol. 209, no. 4, pp 184-87.