Indianapolis, IN — A global alliance of 17 organizations, headed up by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), published a report not just advising doctors to prescribe exercise to cancer patients, but arguing vehemently that by not advising cancer patients to work out, health care leaders are drastically failing the oncology community. According to the report, physical activity “should become a vital sign, similar to blood pressure.” In a similar vein, “exercise prescriptions,” the authors argue, should be integrated into the standard of care. 

Though exercise has not yet been proved, in a randomized controlled clinical trial, to improve overall survival, "We are now at a point where we have more evidence in the area of exercise oncology than we had for heart disease [to become standard of care]," said the report’s lead author, Dr. Kathryn Schmitz, MPH, of the Penn State Cancer Institute. “A drug with similar benefits would be prescribed broadly.” Plus, there are now exercise trials underway in a number of different cancers. 

The report points out that most people living with cancer and post-cancer are less than regularly physically active. Part of the reason for this is that oncologists don’t know what role to assume when it comes to assessing a patient’s physical activity. “None of us has any interest in making the oncologist the bad guy,” says Schmitz. “They are overwhelmed. It’s not simply that the oncologist needs to talk about this more—you need a better workforce and changes in policy.”

As a very first step, the authors make a simple proposition. Oncologists should ask their patients two basic questions. The first is, "How many days during the past week have you performed physical activity where your heart beasts faster and your breathing is harder than normal for 30 minutes or more?" And the second: "How many days during the past week have you performed physical activity to increase muscle strength, such as lifting weights?" Doctors will have to make individual determinations about whether it’s safe for a given patient to work out unsupervised—and, if the answer is yes, refer them to a biweekly aerobic exercise program and a weekly regimen of resistance exercise.  

Why This Matters

Life sciences leaders across the landscape are looking at patients and their conditions more holistically. Without compromising their commitments to pharmaceutical innovation, they’re working to treat and support patients in the realms of mental health, affordable housing, food insecurity, and more. The ACSM report suggests that dedicated pharma brands may start facilitating patients’ physical fitness. “It’s an entire waterfront of change,” Schmitz says.

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.