Exercising right for older adults with cancer

With 1 in 2 Australian men and women being diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85, there’s over 1 million people alive in Australia who are either living with or have been previously diagnosed with cancer.

Some of the more common cancers in older adults include:
• Breast cancer
• Prostate cancer
• Lung cancer
• Bowel cancer

Thanks to advances in treatment, many people are living longer after a cancer diagnosis. Living longer is one thing but living well is even better. We can use exercise to counteract the many side effects of cancer treatment so people can live long and fulfilling lives.

Cancer treatment can create an accelerated ageing process. For example, 12 weeks of chemotherapy creates a similar decline in cardiorespiratory fitness as seen in more than a decade of ageing, and it can accelerate the loss of muscle mass and strength and cause a rapid loss of bone mass. The way to counteract this ageing process is through appropriately prescribed exercise.

Exercising before, during and after cancer treatment offers the most protective effect, but it is never too late to start.

The role of exercise in cancer care

In 2009, Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA) published the first ever position statement in the world on exercise guidelines for people with cancer. Since then, there has been exponential growth in research evaluating the role of exercise pre-, during and post-cancer treatment.

More recently, further literature has been published, including the 2019 ESSA position statement on cancer-specific exercise prescription, and the 2019 ESSA consensus statement on the role of Accredited Exercise Physiologists in the treatment of cancer.

The benefits of exercise

Exercise is widely accepted as important for maintaining good health, reducing the risk of chronic disease, and aiding rehabilitation from disease. Physical activity decreases the risk of developing many cancers including our common cancers.

The benefits of exercise for people with cancer include:
• Improved muscle strength and fitness
• Improved physical function to help with everyday activities
• Improved immune function
• Improved mood and self-esteem
• Reduced hospitalisation duration
• Reduced psychological and emotional stress, including depression and anxiety
• Reduced number and severity of symptoms and side effects reported (e.g., pain, fatigue, nausea)
• Reduced chance of developing new cancers and other diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis
• May improve tolerance to treatment by reducing chemotherapy related toxicities such as chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy and cardiac deficiency, therefore reducing treatment delays
• May improve the efficacy of treatment
• Increased chance of survival and reduced chance of recurrence

Things to remember

It’s important to remember that it’s not a “one size fits all” approach. Appropriate exercise prescription for those living with cancer needs to be targeted and individualised by an exercise professional according to patient- and cancer-specific considerations.

After listening to you and your needs, an exercise professional will prescribe the correct dose of exercise. This includes the right mode, frequency, intensity and duration of exercise for you.

Remember that sometimes a seemingly ‘easy’ activity, for example walking for 10 minutes, might feel like moderate intensity during treatment, so it’s important to exercise at an intensity that feels right.

As we age, there are often other health issues we are dealing with, such as joint pain, osteoporosis, balance problems and heart conditions. Accredited exercise professionals will consider these health conditions when prescribing an exercise program. These health conditions can also benefit from exercise when appropriately prescribed.

Speak to the exercise professionals

Everyone’s treatment programs and backgrounds are different, which means the exercise program needs to be unique as well. The very best way to know what type of exercise to do is to work with an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, as they’re the experts in exercise prescription.

Currently there are over 6,000 Accredited Exercise Physiologists throughout Australia and your cancer care team will be able to recommend one who specialises in cancer. You can find one close to your home by looking at the online ESSA directory.

For further resources, download ESSA’s Exercise & Cancer eBook, available for free here.

Read more in the Exercise for Older Adults eBook! Download here. 

Expert Contributor: Dale Ischia, Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Moving Beyond Cancer in Melbourne