Exercise as Medicine: The Prescription Your Side Effects Don’t Want You to Know About

Michael Czaplowski Body Fat, Cancer and Fatigue, Cancer Survival, Exercise for Cancer, Mental Health, Physical Function, Side Effects, Weight

Tiredness, shortness of breath, weight gain, weight loss, nausea, neuropathy, muscle weakness, lymphedema, reduced bone density, impaired balance, low mood, disturbed sleep…. These are just some of the nasty, unwanted side effects that people living with cancer can experience on a day to day basis due to cancer and its associated treatment. What if I told you we could we give people a tablet that would assist with reducing the impact of these side effects? Seems too good to be true right?

Obviously such a miracle tablet isn’t readily available. But the good news is that we have something else we can prescribe that we know can achieve a similar outcome… EXERCISE!

There is plethora of evidence to support exercise as an adjunct treatment for people living with cancer:

Cancer-related fatigue is far and away the most common symptom we come across in clinical practice and often the most debilitating. Some may feel that exercising while experiencing fatigue would be counterproductive, however when done appropriately – and under professional guidance – exercise is considered first line therapy for cancer-related fatigue management. The evidence currently advises that performing three 30-minute bouts of moderate intensity aerobic exercise per week will help improve cancer-related fatigue. For tips on how to deal with fatigue during and after treatment you can check out an earlier blog on this topic here

More often than not cancer and its associated treatment sees the body undergo physical changes that include weight gain, weight loss, muscle loss or even a combination of each. These changes can be a consequence of factors such as chemotherapy, medication use and changes in appetite. The combination of a sound diet* and an appropriately tailored exercise program can help with reversing (or slowing) these body composition changes. Exercise in particular can help increase the body’s lean mass (that’s our muscle, read more on this here) while simultaneously reducing body fat – how good! 

Physical function is an umbrella term we use to describe how well our body functions physically on a day-to-day basis. It’s components include fitness, strength, balance, and mobility. A combination of weekly aerobic and resistance exercise is recommended to assist with improving all domains of physical function, whereas aerobic or resistance training on their own – while still beneficial – may not address the whole picture. Additionally, supervised exercise appears to be more effective than unsupervised exercise or home-based programs.

It is also just as common that people living with cancer will experience some level of psychological distress during and/or after treatment. And guess what, our fancy little exercise pill can also help with reducing this mental toll. Aerobic exercise or combined aerobic and resistance exercise – interestingly, not resistance exercise on its own – has been proven to reduce depression and anxiety symptoms in those with cancer during and after treatment. 

As you can see, I could go on and on about the benefits of exercise for people living with cancer, but I don’t want to hold anyone up from getting started! So here are a quick couple of additional benefits of exercise for people living with cancer: 

  • Improve lymphedema (resistance only)
  • Improve bone health (resistance only)
  • Improve sleep quality (aerobic only)

One final point: in our last blog we promised to touch on what the current evidence says about cancer prevention and survival. It is hard to contain our excitement about what the evidence currently suggests!

Consistent observational evidence advocates that engaging in physical activity after a cancer diagnosis reduces the risk of cancer-specific and all-cause mortality for individuals diagnosed with breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer. Additionally, individual studies support the benefits of exercise for other tumour streams. Post-diagnosis physical activity appears to exert greater effect on cancer outcomes compared to pre-diagnosis physical activity indicating that it is never too late to start participating in regular exercise following a cancer diagnosis!

Research also supports that performing 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75–150 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week assists with the prevention of 7 common cancer types: bladder, breast, colon, endometrial, esophogeal, kidney, and stomach. 

So let me ask you again: if your GP sat you down and told you they had a pill that would help reduce your fatigue, improve your physical function, mitigate negative body composition changes, improve your mental health, decrease lymphedema, improve bone health, and improve sleep quality while also potentially increasing our survival rate, would you take that pill? To us the answer is a no brainer!

Following a cancer diagnosis it is never too early or too late to speak to an Exercise Physiologist/Physiotherapist who specialises in oncology care. We are here to help kick start your exercise journey and experience these wonderful benefits.

*Dietary needs during and after cancer treatment are a complex but important issue. We recommend seeking advice from an Accredited Practicing Dietician who specialises in oncology.


Written by Michael Czaplowski, Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Movement Against Cancer