Exercise Guidelines to Beat and Reduce Risk of Cancer

In October 2019, the America College of Sports Medicine and the American Cancer Society along with 15 other International organizations released this article1. While the article got a little news traction – an article in the New York Times a few shares on Twitter, I feel like this should have been front page headlines, and here’s why…

The article highlighted that physically active people have as much as 69 percent less risk of being diagnosed with certain cancers than sedentary people. 69 percent!! Not only that, but exercise seems to be especially potent at lessening the likelihood of developing seven common malignancies: colon, breast, endometrial, kidney, bladder, esophageal and stomach cancers.

The other huge finding was that once a person was diagnosed with cancer, exercise could actually change their course of illness. In animal studies exercise has been shown to alter the molecular environment around the tumour – slowing or halting growth.

Exercise during cancer treatment was associated with less feelings of anxiety, depression, fatigue and longer life span. Patients that did aerobic and resistance type exercises had increased quality of life and higher perceived physical function. Do you need more convincing or are you ready to shout this from the roof tops?

So what’s stopping us from exercising?

In breast cancer, there was once a myth that exercise may increase the risk of developing upper extremity lymphedema, creating fear and avoidance of exercise for survivors. But time and time again, this myth has been dispelled2. Exercise has not been associated with an increased risk of developing lymphedema.

The other big factor is that we aren’t active enough as a society – cancer or no cancer diagnosis. In fact, in October 2019 Participaction released a report stating only 16% of healthy Canadian’s are achieving the minimum of 150 minute of moderate intensity exercise per week3.

So, if you are the type of person that knowing the hard facts will motivate you to get moving here is the headline:

Exercise Reduces Cancer Risk

What kind of exercise can I do during cancer treatment?

While cancer treatment is increasingly more successful the side effects can be devastating leaving individuals fatigued, weak and feeling ill. Therefore, the recommendations are aerobic exercise 3 days per week at a moderate intensity (such as brisk walking) for at least 30 minutes and lifting weights 2 days per week. This is less than the guidelines for health adults which 150 min per week of moderate intensity aerobic activity, 2 days a week of resistance exercise. The guidelines specifies that patients with peripheral neuropathy, arthritis, poor bone health, lymphedema have a pre-exercise medical evaluation by a rehabilitation specialist. I am ReActive physiotherapist Allison Francis and I have 15 years of experience in breast cancer rehabilitation, exercise therapy and I can give guidance following this best available evidence. Medical evaluation and clearance by a physician is recommended for anyone that underwent lung or abdominal surgery, cardiopulmonary disease, ataxia, severe nutrition deficiency or bone metastases1.

So, join me in spreading the word: Get up and move!


  1. Campbell K et al, Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors: Consensus Statement from International Multidisciplinary Roundtable Med Sci Sports Exerc 51 (11) 2375-2390, 2019.
  2. Ahn S, Port E Lymphedema Precautions: Time to Abandon Old Practices? Journal of Clinical Oncology 34(7), 2016. 665-658.
  3. https://www.participaction.com/en-ca/resources/adult-report-card