Cancer patients who exercise experience milder side effects from treatment, have a lower risk of cancer recurrence, and a lower risk of dying. So why don’t more doctors suggest their patients exercise?

That’s what a group of cancer specialists in Australia wants to know.

The Clinical Oncology Society of Australia has just released a position statement calling on all doctors to discuss exercise with their cancer patients, and to “prescribe” it.

While most cancer patients are told to rest, the group says the better advice would be to urge patients to return to normal activities as soon as possible, and then work up to getting 150 minutes of exercise a week.

They also recommend referring patients to physiotherapists or exercise physiologists with experience in cancer care, to help patients find exercise plans that work.

Prue Cormie, chair of the COSA Exercise and Cancer Care Group and lead author of the statement, says there is plenty of evidence now that exercise improves a patient’s prognosis.

“Based on what the science tells us, exercise is the best medicine people with cancer can take, in addition to their cancer treatments, to reverse treatment related side-effects, slow the progression of their cancer, increase quality of life and improve the chances of survival,” she said in a statement.

She said research shows exercise helps cancer patients tolerate aggressive treatments such as chemotherapy, counteracts cancer-related fatigue, relieves stress, minimizes the physical declines caused by cancer, and generally improves quality of life.

David Speakman, the chief medical officer at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, said the new position statement is a significant step forward in the cancer treatment.

“The notion that we must protect a patient, wrap them in cotton wool, is old fashioned and not supported by the research,” he said in a statement.

“Our attitudes to treating cancer – what it takes to give people their best chance at survival – have to change. All cancer patients will benefit from an exercise prescription.”