Exercise: Prevention and Treatment of Cancer for University students

One third of all cancer related deaths can be attributed to dietary and physical activity choices.1 Another one third of all cancer related deaths can be attributed to tobacco exposure.1 There are four important factors that you have control over in reducing your risk for developing cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.1 They include maintaining a healthy weight, making healthy dietary choices, avoiding tobacco products and a lifetime engagement of meeting or exceeding physical activity guidelines.1

As of 2004, approximately 60% of Australian university students participated in the minimum amount of physical activity needed to build health benefits.2 University students in other countries, including USA and Canada, had less than half of their student population meeting these requirements.2

A European study investigated the health beliefs and behaviours of university students in 1990 and 2000.3 Overall the prevalence of smoking in European university students increased by 5% and physical activity increased by 3-4%.3 However physical activity participation in 2000 ranged from as little as 36.7% to 87.4% in women and from 60.4% to 87.8% in men.3

For countries whose university students believed that being a non-smoker was NOT an important factor to maintain their health showed larger increases in smoking occurrence.3 Similarly this study showed that countries whose university students believed that physical activity benefited their health had higher rates of physical activity participation.3 This demonstrates that knowledge about certain behaviours, including the benefits and risks of those behaviours, can impact upon university students decisions’ to engage in those behaviours.3

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Overall, less than half of European university students were aware that physical activity decreases the risk of developing heart disease.3 It’s not hard to imagine how few would then be aware of the benefits of physical activity to decrease the risk of developing cancer.

Many studies have found that exercise can decrease the risk of developing cancer.4,5 For instance, physical exercise impacts on sex hormones, insulin production and inflammatory markers which are all factors in the development of cancer.4  Furthermore exercise has been shown to be beneficial prior to, during, and after the completion of cancer treatment.5

Prior to treatment, exercise can improve your initial strength and cardio-respiratory fitness levels.5 During treatment, exercise can assist in controlling tumour growth. Furthermore physical activity has been shown to reduce the duration of hospital stays; reduce the number, duration and severity of treatment related side effects; and reduce mortality rates.5 After treatment, exercise has been shown to lower the risk of cancer reoccurring, shorten the recovery period from treatment and manage long-term side effects of treatment such as fatigue and osteoporosis.5

The benefits of physical activity during and post cancer treatment also include maintaining or improving motor function abilities and body composition, such as muscle strength and bone health. Physical activity has also been shown to improve quality of life including mood and self-esteem, and reduce psychological distress, including depression and anxiety, from cancer diagnosis and treatment. Moreover physical activity has been shown to improve cognitive function and sleep quality for cancer patients.5

Research is demonstrating that exercise can impact tumour growth in several ways. Tumours are a part of a person’s body, they are cells that have an altered cellular metabolism which allows for rapid cell growth.4 Physical activity expends energy and impacts upon a person’s metabolism in various ways, including the metabolism of their tumour.4

During physical activity energy may be redirected from the tumour to other sections of the body (i.e. muscles etc.) that need energy whilst exercising, subsequently limiting the tumour’s ability to grow.4 However exercise may also change the signalling pathway within a tumour’s metabolic system which would also impact upon it’s growth rate.4 Exercise may reduce the growth rate of a tumour by up to 67%.4

Exercise also impacts your immune system and may increase the “fighter” type of cells produced by your immune system that help to decrease tumour growth.4 Increased body temperature from exercising can help to increase the diameter of the blood vessels within your body and the tumour allowing immune system “fighter” cells to more easily access the tumour.

Exercise can be very effective as a supportive strategy to enhance the effects of cancer treatments. An important aspect of this is that exercise increases the circulation of your blood through your body. The blood carries oxygen to your muscles and bones and takes away carbon dioxide. Radiotherapy relies on tumours being sufficiently oxygenated whilst chemotherapy relies on blood delivering the cytotoxic drugs to tumours. Hence by exercising immediately prior to, during or immediately after treatment, exercise can enhance the effects of your cancer treatment.

Evidence indicates that regular exercise can impact on tumour growth regardless of the type of cancer diagnosis.4 Research also suggests that individualised exercise treatment plans provided by exercise professionals specialising in cancer treatment can have improved outcomes for cancer patients. Individualised exercise treatment plans focus on type, duration and intensity of exercise that is best suited for the individual and their cancer battle.

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with cancer consider seeking the advice of an Accredited Exercise Physiologist as an adjunct therapy for your cancer treatment.


  1. Kushi, L. H., Doyle, C, McCullough, M. et al. American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA: A cancer journal for Clinicians. (2012). 62(1):30-67.
  2. Irwin, J. D. (2004) Prevalence of university students sufficient physical activity: A systematic review. Perceptual and motor skills. 98(3):927-943.
  3. Steptoe, A., Wardle, J., Cui, W., Bellisle, F., Zottie, A-M., Baranyai, R., Sandermand, R. (2002). Trends in smoking, diet, physical exercise, and attitudes toward health in European university students from 13 countries, 1990-2000. Preventative Medicine. 35(2):97-104.
  4. Hojman, P. Gehl, J., Christensen, J. F., Pedersen, B. K. Molecular mechanisms linking exercise to cancer prevention and treatment. Cell Metabolism. 27(1):10-21.
  5. Hayes, S. & Spence, R. Exercise and Cancer. Exercise is Medicine Australia.

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