Sept. 15, 2020

Cancer survivors thrive through exercise

Successful UCalgary program expands across country with $2.5 million team grant
Nicole Culos-Reed, PhD, Faculty of Kinesiology, in the Thrive Centre with Alberta Cancer Exercise program participants
Nicole Culos-Reed, PhD, in the Thrive Centre at UCalgary with Alberta Cancer Exercise pr Riley Brandt, UCalgary

Barry Dempsey no longer considers himself a survivor of cancer, but a thriver, thanks to the Thrive Centre’s cancer and exercise program at the University of Calgary.

“You’re exercising and not dwelling on your problems, and everyone is pulling for each other — we have a support network of people and that’s why we are called ‘thrivers,’ which is beyond being just a survivor. We are not laying down for this disease,” says Dempsey. 

Dempsey participated in a free 12-week exercise program geared for those with cancer, and cancer survivors, called Alberta Cancer Exercise (ACE). The program is co-led by Drs. Nicole Culos-Reed, PhD, Faculty of Kinesiology and Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, and Dr. Margaret McNeely, PhD, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Alberta. ACE has also been adapted and called ACCESS in Halifax, N.S., under the direction of Dr. Melanie Keats, PhD.

Expanding to remote and rural communities

Culos-Reed, pictured above, now plans to expand the program beyond urban settings, to remote and rural communities across the country, with $2.5 million in research funding provided by a Canadian Cancer Society/Canadian Institutes of Health Research Cancer Survivorship Team Grant (English and French), in partnership with the Alberta Cancer Foundation.  

“Exercise has physical and mental health benefits for cancer survivorship, but it hasn’t moved into practice in the health-care system,” says Culos-Reed. 

“It’s always been my passion to go beyond the lab to build and implement community-based programs for cancer. With this funding, we can reach more cancer survivors, who may have limited access to cancer care resources.” 

Challenges in rural communities

People in non-urban areas (defined as a population of fewer than 100,000 people) face more barriers to cancer care and support resources because of limited access, long travel distances and lack of trained personnel to implement the services. Culos-Reed says as a result, people in rural areas report having poorer health and lower quality of life.

“In general, Canadians aren’t active enough to gain health benefits, and the rural cancer population is even less active because of barriers, including access to exercise-oncology specific programs,” says Culos-Reed.

Culos-Reed will recruit more than 2,000 participants over the next five years. She will build off the success of current programs in Alberta and Nova Scotia to include other Atlantic provinces, and then build resources in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario. This will include partnering with exercise providers and health-care facilities in rural communities, and training exercise professionals to adapt fitness programs for those with cancer.

Physical data will be collected from rural participants using accelerometers and a new app so participants can track their progress, monitor their well-being, and researchers can monitor the progress of the program.

“We are also building evidence to show there is value in funding exercise physiology positions in the health-care system, to screen, assess, and support cancer survivors in the right exercise program,” says Culos-Reed.

This is a viable model that can be adapted to every community to increase the health of this population, and in the long run, reduce health-care costs.

In May, the ACE team adapted the in-person programs to online sessions, to ensure wellness through remote exercise can be provided to cancer survivors while at home. This is equally important due to COVID-19. For more information about the programs, please contact the Culos-Reed lab or visit the Health and Wellness Lab

Culos-Reed has also started a petition to gather support to make exercise a standard part of cancer care. To sign the petition, please visit

Nicole Culos-Reed is a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and an adjunct professor in the Department of Oncology at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). She is a member of the Alberta Children Hospital Research Institute, the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute, and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.

About the Cancer Survivorship Team Grants

Research funding is provided by the Canadian Cancer Society/Canadian Institutes of Health Research Cancer Survivorship Team Grants, in partnership with the Alberta Cancer Foundation. With a joint investment of $13.4 million, these grants represent the largest, first-of-its-kind cancer survivorship research initiative in Canada.

Six grants were awarded across the country, two from Alberta, including Dr. Nicole Culos-Reed, PhD, Faculty of Kinesiology and Dr. May Lynn Quan, MD, Cumming School of Medicine. Each team grant is nationwide in scope, bringing together researchers, clinicians, survivors and caregivers to address key questions in cancer survivorship. With integrated strategies for patient engagement and knowledge translation, teams will work collaboratively to deliver results that will make a real difference in the lives of people affected by cancer.