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The Benefits of Exercise in Childhood Cancer

The first Friday of August each year sees Australians unite in their favourite pair of jeans for an inspiring cause – Jeans for Genes Day. The campaign raises funds for the Children’s Medical Research Institute, to help scientists find ways to treat or prevent childhood cancer, epilepsy, birth defects and genetic diseases.

Over the last 30 years, the incidence rate of cancer in children aged 0-14 years increased by about 11%, however the cancer mortality rate in children has significantly decreased by about 60%.

This improved survival rate is due to the extensive research being conducted on how to manage and treat childhood cancers such as Leukaemia, brain and spinal cord tumours, Lymphoma and bone cancer.

One of the key effective treatment methods for cancer that research has uncovered is physical activity, and Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA), in conjunction with Exercise Right for Kids, encourages all Australians and health professionals to recognise the health benefits of exercise as a medicine to both manage and prevent the health outcomes of cancer in children.

“Within one year it is estimated that 650 Australian children will be diagnosed with cancer, so it is a significant health issue. Whilst treatment for cancer can be invasive, especially for a child, the potential benefits of exercise during and after treatment are significant and research has proved its effectiveness,” says ESSA Chief Executive Officer, Anita Hobson-Powell.

Exercising during chemotherapy can help ease side effects, such as fatigue and nausea, and can help to boost the immune system of those undergoing cancer treatments. Chemotherapy side effects can sometimes make exercising tough, but it’s recommended to try to be as active as possible during treatment.

Research tells us that children going through cancer treatment have lower cardiorespiratory fitness, diminished muscle mass and strength, poorer flexibility and a reduced functional capacity when compared with their cancer-free counterparts. This is often accompanied by substantial fatigue, and ultimately contributes to poorer Quality of Life (QoL) explains Jason Gardner, Director of Your Move Exercise Physiology, and Accredited Exercise Physiologist specialising in cancer treatment.

“Exercise has the potential to counteract many of the adverse effects of cancer treatment. By staying as active as possible, children can maintain or even improve their strength and fitness. Not only does this help the child tolerate their treatment better, but it is protective against future health issues associated with physical inactivity.”

“Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, maintaining some physical capacity allows children with cancer to run and jump and engage in active play with their friends, letting them feel more like kids and less like cancer patients,” adds Mr. Gardner.

A thorough screening for cancer comorbidities and exercise contraindications should take place by a child’s GP or paediatric oncologist before they commence an exercise program.

Following this, it is essential for exercise programs to be individualised according to the child’s treatment status, disease stage, functional capacity, physical limitations, exercise history and preferences. It’s highly recommended an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) is consulted before an exercise program commences.

“AEPs play an integral role in prevention, supporting the medical management and optimising recovery following diagnosis. The goals of exercise therapy vary depending on whether the child is receiving initial treatment for a new diagnosis, are in remission, or are receiving treatment for a recurrence,” says Ms Hobson-Powell.

To get in contact with your local Accredited Exercise Physiologist, click here.

To get involved this Friday for Jeans for Genes Day, click here.