How we’re helping people with cancer to get active

Date: 30 April 2021

As part of Tour de Walkshire, we spoke to Liam Humphreys, a research fellow at Sheffield Hallam University. His work focuses on how exercise can help to prevent and treat long-term conditions including cancer. We spoke to Liam about the benefits of exercise for people with cancer, and a new service in Sheffield supported by Yorkshire Cancer Research.

Thanks for speaking to us, Liam. Firstly, how important is exercise to you?

Thanks for having me! I'd say exercise is among the most important things for me, personally. I like to do a broad range of exercise. I lift weights, go out for a run, do a bit of walking. I'm a big fan of active travel: I like to walk or cycle to work, and I encourage my kids to cycle to school as well. Sport is a social activity for me too – I  do a lot of swimming and team water sports.

Sometimes my wife compares me to a Collie that you have to take for a walk or otherwise they get a bit antsy in the house! And I think that's one thing during lockdown that a lot of people have realised - how important it is to get outside and do some exercise, not just for fitness benefits, but also to clear your head and just make you feel better.


Why should we all be getting regular exercise?

Exercise is so important for everybody to help maintain a healthy body weight, but also keep fitness levels and strength up as well. It can lower the risk of some cancers and quite a lot of other chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Physical activity can also improve mood and mental health issues as well, such as depression and anxiety.


And why is exercise important for people with cancer?

For people who have cancer, it has the same benefits as for everybody else. But it can also help them maintain their fitness and strength throughout their treatment, which is really important. It's been shown that people with cancer who exercise will have better results from treatment and more treatments available to them as well.

And for some specific cancers, exercise can reduce the chances of it coming back. For prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, and breast cancer there are particularly strong links between exercise and lower levels of recurrence.


Let’s talk about the new service you’re involved in – how will it benefit people with cancer?

With funding from Yorkshire Cancer Research, my colleagues and I at Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre are launching a new service to help people with cancer prepare for and recover from treatment. People with cancer will be offered a combination of physical activity, nutrition, and psychological support, before and after treatment.

The idea is to make exercise a prescribed part of care for people with cancer. When someone’s diagnosed now, they get a treatment plan, but my hope is one day they’ll also get an exercise and diet plan to complement their treatment. That’s exactly what we will be instigating in our work here in Sheffield.

The aim is to improve cancer treatment, minimise the length of time spent in hospital, and reduce the chances of complications from surgery. Further, if the initial treatment is successful we want to reduce the chance of the cancer returning at a later date. We want to create a sustainable service which becomes fully embedded within cancer services, here in Sheffield initially and later across South Yorkshire. We want to show that it can be cost-effective, that it can actually save money for the NHS down the line.

The funding from Yorkshire Cancer Research is crucial for this project – it wouldn’t be happening without that support.


How can we help people with cancer get more exercise?

For people with cancer, there are a number of barriers to being physically active, on top of the barriers that everyone faces.

In my own research we’ve interviewed people affected by cancer to ask them about the exercise they do. A lot of them fear making their condition worse, and they’ve lost faith in their body’s ability to do exercise. In addition, there may be side effects they’re experiencing, such as pain, fatigue, nerve damage, or hot flushes. And there’s the general issues that everyone has when it comes to exercise – lack of time, lack of motivation, and so on.

Generally speaking, there’s three areas we want to improve – people’s access to exercise, their ability to exercise, and their motivation. Exercise programmes like the one we’re doing in Sheffield are increasing people’s opportunity and capability to exercise, because they have the support there to help them do it.


How much exercise should we all be getting?

The World Health Organisation just updated their guidelines at the end of 2020. Now they recommend people should do a minimum of 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (such as brisk walking, riding a bike or hiking) per week, or 75 to 100 minutes of vigorous exercise (such as jogging or running, gymnastics or playing sports like football and rugby), but also two sessions of strength training as well (such as lifting weights, spinning classes or circuit training). That might sound like a lot, but it can be built up through smaller bouts of exercise. If you did some exercise for five minutes, that would count towards your total for the day.


What would be your tips for getting started with being more active?

My main tip is don't do too much too soon. I think when people want to be more active, they can sometimes jump straight in and try and do too much. But even if you did 10 minutes, that's a good start. ‘Wear sensible footwear’ is the traditional good advice for people when they start a new sort of exercise. And also try and find someone else to exercise with – a big thing for me is socialising, it really helps you to get out the house.

If you fancy going the extra mile this May, why not sign up to Tour de Walkshire? Whether you run, cycle or walk, by taking part you’ll be helping to raise vital funds for Liam’s work and other pioneering research in Yorkshire. Find out more about Tour de Walkshire.

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