The benefits of exercise in preventing and treating cancer

According to the UICC, The Union for International Cancer Control, over 7 million people die from cancer and more than 11 million new cases are diagnosed worldwide every year.

Globally, tobacco is responsible for 5 million deaths from a variety of cancers, of which 1.5 million are due to lung cancer. If this trend continues, by 2020, new cases will increase to 16 million per year and cause more than 10 million deaths.

Evidence suggests that one third of cancer deaths annually are linked to cigarette smoke. Another third can be directly attributed to dietary and physical activity habits.

The statistics are frightening to say the least. So what exactly are we doing with this information to ensure we reduce our personal health risks?

The public health recommendations for physical activity for general health, is 20 minutes of moderate intensity activity such as brisk walking, five days a week. Exercise has many proven health benefits for both preventing disease and promoting health and wellbeing. There is ample evidence that suggests that increasing physical activity is associated with lower rates of certain cancers. These include colon, breast, prostate, lung and uterus cancers. Exercise can help prevent obesity, which is related to some types of cancers. It can also change the body’s hormone levels, which may also have a positive effect. Those who engage in a high level of physical activity are much less likely to smoke cigarettes, the single largest contributor to cancer.

Starting or maintaining an exercise program after a cancer diagnosis assists patients in becoming stronger both mentally and physically.

As a qualified Cancer Exercise Specialist, my aim is to increase interest in physical exercise for the rehabilitation of oncological patients in general, as well as in palliative care.

Evidence of the benefits of exercise for cancer survivors has been reported in numerous areas…

  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Quality of life
  • Cancer related fatigue
  • Physical functioning
  • Body weight and composition
  • Muscle strength and endurance
  • Immune function and cardiovascular fitness.

Exercise may also improve symptoms that interfere with the daily life of cancer patients and survivors. These include lack of appetite, physical and mental fatigue, muscle pain, depression and insomnia to name a few.

Furthermore, various studies show an increase in stamina, strength, self-confidence, treatment tolerance and decreased pain.

The frequency, intensity and duration of exercise sessions needed to improve physical and emotional functioning in people with cancer will differ according to specific treatments, cancer type and individual response to treatment.

After cancer surgery, exercise plays an invaluable role in helping one return to previous strength and fitness levels.

In numerous cases, due to lack of physical activity prior to surgery, many people are able to reach new heights in strength, flexibility and cardio conditioning. There are certain postural deviations that often arise after surgery that are compounded by reconstruction and radiation. Through the correct combination of stretching and strengthening, these deviations can be radically improved upon and in some cases, entirely corrected.

These postural imbalances are often seen in people and are caused by normal everyday circumstances such as working at a computer, holding your phone between your ear and shoulder, holding a baby on one hip etc. A thorough postural assessment can determine which areas need to be stretched to relieve tightness and spasm and which need to be strengthened to create a counter balance.

There are many benefits of cardio or aerobic training. Swimming, running and cycling are a few examples which will produce endorphins that give rise to much needed energy. Due to the damaging effect of chemo and radiation on the heart and lungs, cardio conditioning can assist in strengthening both.

Swimming is an excellent form of cardio, especially for women with breast cancer. It provides a source of relief for tight muscles without putting excessive strain on them. The buoyancy of the water allows them to focus on flexibility and range of motion for their arms and shoulders and allows for a wonderful workout! Having said this, swimming should not be limited to women with breast cancer only, as it has numerous benefits for everyone.

Yoga is another form of therapeutic exercise that has several health benefits for cancer patients.

On the physical side, it can dramatically improve symptoms such as pain and fatigue. It also reduce stress and anxiety which reduces blood pressure and heart rate as a result. The mind and body connection which yoga is so well known for, can relieve the symptoms of depression and insomnia with guided breathing and meditation techniques. It allows the patient to bring their attention to the present moment by focusing on their breath. Consequently, this shifts the balance from the fight or flight response to the parasympathetic nervous system, which encourages relaxation by slowing the heart rate.

Gentle yoga poses are wonderful for improving the body’s immune system. They stimulate the muscles, increase blood flow, clear out toxins accumulated during treatment and boost the lymphatic flow of the body.

The benefits of exercise are paramount in preventing and treating cancer.

Exercise can decrease the risk of future cancers and slow down cancer progression. It also assists in minimizing cancer treatment side effects and helps patients return to their previous levels of fitness.

Let us not wait until we are diagnosed with cancer before starting an exercise regime. Find something you enjoy doing so that it is easier to stick to and allow the benefits to improve the quality of your life.



LEONARD, A (2016). Cancer Exercise Specialist Handbook (10th ed). Oregan.

CANSA. (2011). Retrieved From (Accessed 29-01-2017).