Exercise and Cancer: Then, Now and Next

Currently, 1 in 2 people in Australia and NZ will be diagnosed with Cancer by the time they’re 85 (1). That’s a flip of a coin.

Naturally, there is a lot of work going into figuring out how to change the odds. Genetics, medications, treatment, environment, and lifestyle, including exercise, all playing a role.

Exercise is free and there are SO MANY benefits. The relationship between exercise and cancer has evolved over the last few decades, and it’s pretty exciting stuff.  So we thought we’d go on a historical journey from past to future!

Then: Rest is Best

… Or is it?

Way back when, REST was the go-to treatment, for, basically anything.

Have a sore back? – Rest!

Chronically fatigued? – Just rest!

Cancer? – Rest!

With the recent advancements in scientific research, we are beginning to understand that pure rest is not the best advice for any of these conditions – and in some cases, can actually exacerbate further!

Sure, rest is important (very important!), but not all of the time. Like everything in life, you need to find the right balance – and this goes for Cancer and exercise vs rest.

And Then: Prevention

In 1922 the first report was published linking physical activity and cancer.

But it took 60 years for the recognition to really start picking up that exercise plays a key role in decreasing the risk of cancer. It wasn’t until the 1980s that it was a fact!

Yep, now its 100% fact. A regular exercise routine can even help to reduce the risk of cancer occurring in the first place.

Those who are habitually physically active have a lower risk of developing cancer (2), as well as many other chronic health conditions!

Yet, less than half of Australians currently meet the physical activity guidelines! (4).

Now: Exercise for Recovery Post Cancer

Now, it is pretty standard care for cancer patients to commence an exercise program after they have finish traditional cancer treatments (chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery).

Starting an exercise program after treatment supports the patient in returning back to a normal life.

Exercise can improve cancer recovery (2) by reducing symptoms such as fatigue, pain, nausea, and getting back strength and fitness!

Exercise also affects the symptoms often forgotten: the psychological effects! Exercise is proven to be protective against conditions such as depression, anxiety, and other psychosocial variables (3).

Next: Exercise to Enhance Outcomes DURING Cancer Treatment 

This should be in the present, but it’s not standard care, yet. So, unfortunately, we have to put it here.

Even though this is becoming more prevalent, it was only 3 years ago the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia published a position statement calling for:

“Exercise to be embedded as part of standard practice in cancer care and to be viewed as an adjunct therapy that helps counteract the adverse effects of cancer and its treatment.”

This means including exercise as a form of therapy in itself, to be completed alongside conventional medical treatment, at the time of treatment. 

The approach to combine exercise treatment alongside other forms of therapy may still meet resistance from patients and health professionals alike (5), however, this is likely due belief that exercise can exacerbate symptoms. And there is potential if the patient is not working with an appropriate exercise and health professional.

But an exercise program designed with the individual in mind, and with an understanding of the specific exercise contra-indications for cancer, is considered safe and effective for cancer patients even during treatment (5). The COSA position statement for exercise in cancer care states that best practice includes referral to appropriate exercise professionals, such as an accredited exercise physiologist (6).

If you want to nerd out on some of the physiology of how exercise actually helps with cancer recovery, you can check out an old article of ours: How Exercise Helps Cancer

And Things Continue to Evolve… 

As the science progresses, so do the recommendations.

In recent years there has been an increased value placed on a rehabilitation approach that is multidisciplinary, looking at the whole human; including nutrition, sleep hygiene and stress management as well as exercise.

This is why we developed our ReBalance program, specifically for cancer recovery, because we want to be ahead of the “standard recommendations” and providing up to date evidence-based care!!

Wherever science takes us, we’re excited for the progress and we’ll be jumping on board!

Have a claimant we can help with? Make a referral!


  1. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/107108812/oneintwo-nz-australian-men-at-risk-of-cancer–highest-rate-in-world
  2. https://www.futuremedicine.com/doi/pdf/10.2217/fon-2016-0055
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7387117/
  4. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/risk-factors/insufficient-physical-activity/contents/insufficient-physical-activity
  5. https://www.essa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/ESSA-Optimising-Cancer-Outcomes-Through-Exercise1.pdf
  6. https://www.cosa.org.au/media/332488/cosa-position-statement-v4-web-final.pdf

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Author: Biara Webster
Editor: Yolanda van Vugt