Why exercise has a crucial role in cancer prevention, risk reduction and improved outcomes

Author Identifier

Robert U Newton


Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Title

British Medical Bulletin





First Page


Last Page


PubMed ID



Oxford Academic


School of Medical and Health Sciences / Exercise Medicine Research Institute




Thomas, R., Kenfield, S. A., Yanagisawa, Y., & Newton, R. U. (2021). Why exercise has a crucial role in cancer prevention, risk reduction and improved outcomes. British Medical Bulletin, 139(1), 100-119. https://doi.org/10.1093/bmb/ldab019


INTRODUCTION: Exercise is one of several factors known to lower the risk of developing cancer, as well as improve outcomes in patients already diagnosed. People who exercise after cancer have lower rates of cancer complications, treatment toxicities, relapse and improved survival. This review highlights the supportive data and biochemical processes, which explain these potential benefits. SOURCES OF DATA: PubMed, Embase, Medline and Cochrane libraries were searched for papers which addressed the effects of exercise and physical activity on cancer for this review. The search terms used were physical activity, exercise and cancer up to February 2021. We also referred to the background research required for international exercise intervention study involving men with prostate cancer (INTERVAL-GAP4) and scrutinized references within the robust papers published on this subject to ensure we did not miss any clinically studies. One hundred and eighty eight papers were included. AREAS OF AGREEMENT: Exercise programmes mitigate many of the complications and risks associated with cancer, particularly thromboembolism, fatigue, weight gain, arthralgia, cognitive impairment and depression. AREAS OF CONTROVERSY: Molecular and biomarker changes, resulting from exercise, suggest that exercise elicits beneficial changes in insulin-related pathways, down-regulates inflammation and serum oestrogen levels, and enhances oxidative, immune and cellular repair pathways. Nonetheless, the evidence remains preliminary. GROWING POINTS: The timing, intensity and challenges of prehabilitation, adjunct and rehabilitation exercise programmes are being increasingly understood but their implementation remains sporadic. AREAS FOR DEVELOPING RESEARCH: More robust clinical trial data are needed to substantiate a causal effect of exercise on overall and cancer-specific survival. These studies are ongoing. Research evaluating the most cost-efficient ways of incorporating prehabilitation, adjunct and rehabilitation programmes into routine practice would be helpful to funding bodies and health care strategists.



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