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Cancer and fitness

Cancer is one of the most pervasive diseases in the world, affecting millions of people every year. While conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are effective, there is growing evidence that exercise can play a significant role in improving cancer patients' outcomes. In recent years, exercise has become an increasingly popular complementary therapy for cancer patients, and it's easy to see why. Here are a few reasons why exercise is fast becoming a big part of cancer treatment protocols and why it increases survival rates.

  1. Immune system modulation

Exercise has been shown to modulate the immune system, potentially improving the body's ability to fight cancer. Regular exercise can increase the number and activity of immune cells that target cancer cells, such as natural killer (NK) cells and T cells. Exercise can also reduce inflammation, which can help to create an environment that is less hospitable to cancer growth.

  1. Hormonal regulation

Exercise has been shown to regulate hormones such as insulin and estrogen, which can have an impact on cancer growth. Insulin resistance and high levels of insulin have been linked to an increased risk of several types of cancer, including breast, colon, and pancreatic cancer. Exercise can help to regulate insulin levels and improve insulin sensitivity, potentially reducing the risk of cancer. Exercise can also reduce levels of estrogen, which is important in estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.

  1. Angiogenesis inhibition

Angiogenesis is the process by which new blood vessels are formed. This is important for cancer growth and metastasis, as it allows cancer cells to access nutrients and oxygen. Exercise has been shown to inhibit angiogenesis, potentially slowing cancer growth and spread.

  1. DNA repair

Cancer is often caused by DNA damage, which can occur due to environmental factors such as radiation and chemicals, as well as normal cellular processes. Exercise has been shown to improve DNA repair mechanisms, potentially reducing the risk of cancer and improving cancer outcomes.

In terms of specific exercise protocols, research suggests that both aerobic exercise and resistance training can have beneficial effects in cancer patients. Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, reduce fatigue, and improve quality of life in cancer patients. Resistance training has been shown to improve muscle strength, reduce fatigue, and improve physical function in cancer patients.

Myokines are a group of cytokines produced by skeletal muscle cells in response to exercise. They have been shown to have multiple beneficial effects on the body, including reducing inflammation, improving insulin sensitivity, and promoting muscle growth. Resistance training has been shown to increase the production of myokines, which can aid in cancer recovery rates. Specifically, myokines such as interleukin-6 (IL-6) and irisin have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, potentially reducing the risk of cancer and improving cancer outcomes. Additionally, myokines such as follistatin have been shown to promote muscle growth, which is important for maintaining physical function and quality of life in cancer patients. While more research is needed to fully understand the role of myokines in cancer recovery, resistance training has been shown to be an effective way to increase their production and potentially improve cancer outcomes.

Additionally, exercise programs that are tailored to individual patient needs and abilities have been found to be safe and effective for cancer patients. Exercise specialists and healthcare providers can work with patients to develop exercise programs that are appropriate for their individual situations.

One of the world leaders in this research is Australian Professor of Exercise Medicine, Dr Rob Newton. Dr Newton has been working tirelessly on the effect that exercise can have in improving survival rates of cancer patients.

Current major research directions include:

  1. exercise medicine as neoadjuvant, adjuvant and rehabilitative cancer therapy to reduce side-effects and enhance effectiveness of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy;

  2. the influence of targeted exercise medicine on tumour biology and exercise medicine for reducing decline in quality of life, strength, body composition and functional ability in cancer patients.

To read a great abstract of some of the work Dr Newton is undertaking, CLICK HERE

But if you're more of an audio person, you can listen to this very informative podcast interview he did HERE


Regular exercise has been shown to play an important role in cancer prevention, treatment, and recovery. Exercise can help reduce the risk of cancer, improve the ability to tolerate treatment, and increase survival rates. It achieves this by promoting beneficial physiological actions in the body, such as reducing inflammation, improving insulin sensitivity, and promoting muscle growth. Despite the many benefits of exercise, cancer patients may face barriers to engaging in physical activity. It is crucial for healthcare providers to understand and address these barriers to help patients incorporate exercise into their cancer treatment plans. By promoting physical activity, healthcare providers and cancer patients can work towards better cancer outcomes and improved quality of life.

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