We all know that exercise is important for health and wellbeing, but even on a good day it can be hard to motivate yourself to get off the couch. Add nausea, joint pain and fatigue – all common side effects of cancer treatment – and the idea of exercising can feel daunting. Until fairly recently, the advice to people undergoing treatment for breast cancer was to rest and avoid physical activity. However, overwhelming evidence now shows that withholding exercise may actually be harmful to people being treated for breast cancer.
Associate Professor Prue Cormie is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) and researcher and is leading the charge on ‘exercise as medicine’ for all cancer patients. Associate Professor Cormie is the Chair of the Exercise and Cancer Group within the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia which in 2018 launched a ‘world-first’ position statement calling for exercise to be prescribed to all cancer patients as part of their other medical treatment.
“If we could turn the benefits of exercise into a pill it would be demanded by patients, prescribed by every cancer specialist and would be seen as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment,” Associate Professor Cormie said.
So, what counts as a therapeutic dose of exercise and how do you get started? The good news is that you don’t need a gym membership or expensive activewear to gain benefits from regular exercise. A leisurely stroll won’t cut it but walking briskly as if you are late for an appointment is a good place to start.
“Scientific research shows the benefits come out of exercise that has been done at moderate intensity. Puffing, sweating a little bit, your heart [is] beating faster than it normally would,” Associate Professor Cormie said.
“It’s lifting weights as well. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in a gym but that’s usually the ideal place to be so you can control the safety and make sure it’s really efficient in terms of what type of exercise. Weightbearing
activity where you’re actually stressing the muscle at an intensity that prompts these changes within our bodies to allow us to actually counteract the negative effects of cancer and its treatment,” Associate Professor Cormie said.
The safest way to start exercising following a breast cancer diagnosis is to see an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) or a physiotherapist. AEPs specialise in developing personalised exercise programs for the prevention and management of chronic diseases and injuries. This is especially important for people with bone and lung metastases who may have limitations on what kind of exercise is safe for them.
“As exercise physiologists, we understand what happens in the body when exercising and can prescribe exercise in the same way any doctor prescribes medication,” she said.
AEPs work in a variety of settings such as private clinics and hospitals. An AEP can help develop and supervise an individual exercise program that is safe and appropriate for you. You can also receive a Medicare rebate for the
cost of seeing an AEP, through a Chronic Disease Management Plan. See your GP to discuss developing one of these plans.
The thought of exercise can be daunting, even without the added barrier of a breast cancer diagnosis. It is important to remember that there are so many different ways to exercise and no one way is going to work for everyone. There’s no right or wrong way.
“It doesn’t matter what level you start at, you start where you’re at and then you just progress from there,” Associate Professor Cormie said.
What’s the difference between a personal trainer and an exercise physiologist?
Associate Professor Prue Cormie: “As a minimum, exercise physiologists must complete four years of university and 500 hours of clinical placement. By comparison, personal trainers are required to have a
certificate level qualification – usually a Certificate III or IV in Fitness, which can take up to 12 months to complete through TAFE or a similar registered training organisation.”
What kinds of exercise can be helpful for my recovery and ongoing health?