exercise for children with cancer

Children Recovering from Cancer: Why Exercise Matters

We’re all familiar with the big “C” word. Either we have been through the experience ourselves, or know someone who has.

We hear about adult cancer weekly, if not daily, however we are often less familiar with childhood cancers. This is likely due to the significant difference in population sizes. In Australia in 2017, there was a huge 15,253 new cases of bowel cancer alone, while only 719 children between 0-14 years were diagnosed with cancer.

There has been a lot of hype recently about the role of exercise in cancer therapy for the adult population – but what about exercise for children with cancer? Well, research has begun, and it’s looking promising!

Why is exercise so important?

Studies looking into the effects of exercise on childhood oncology have found reductions in both disease and treatment-related side effects. Physical activity also improves quality of life through increased physical functioning, reduced anxiety and encouragement for socialising. Tailored exercise interventions can improve lost confidence and develop motor skills, as well as help address any major deficits or health problems associated with the cancer or treatment.

Motor Skill Development:

Exercise is crucial for both the physiological and psychological development of youth. Cancer treatment interrupts both structured and unstructured physical activity participation, which has an unfavourable impact on motor proficiency and skill development. Sufficiently developed motor skills play a critical role in childhood for:
• Self-esteem
• Social abilities
• Level of fitness
• Recreational activity participation
Many children lose the confidence to return to previous physical activity after treatment. This is often due to no longer feeling as fit, skilled or coordinated as their peers, due to time lost with illness and treatment.

Late-Adverse Effects of treatment (LAE):

The advancements in treatment for childhood and adolescent cancers are often accompanied by several late-adverse effects. These may include:
• Impaired growth
• Cognitive dysfunction
• Compromised cardiopulmonary and metabolic function
Reduced physical activity is a recognised risk factor for a range of chronic health problems in the general population, but unfortunately, may also exacerbate these LAE of treatment amongst survivors.

Getting started

What to consider:

Childhood and adolescent cancer survivors face a number of unique barriers to physical activity. These can include side effects of treatment such as:
• Nausea and gastrointestinal problems
• Pain, or limitations due to affected limbs
• Lack of fitness, confidence, and physical fatigue
• Decreased enjoyment due to enhanced exertion

So, what’s the right kind of exercise for children with cancer? In these situations, the following factors are just some that need to be considered when prescribing exercise:
• Fatigue levels
• Overall deconditioning
• Balance issues
• Limb loss
• Medication side-effects

What’s next?

It is important to speak to an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) about exercise for children with cancer. An AEP is an ideally positioned health professional to discuss perceived barriers to physical activity, as well as provide a safe, and specific exercise program. An AEP with a background in paediatrics is important too, as current exercise guidelines for cancer survivors are based on adult data. Children and adults are different in both the exercise response and the pathophysiology of their health conditions.

To find an AEP near you, click here.