Exercise oncology: Better health for survivors

Lauren Ha is smiling at the camera with a green, leafy garden in the background.
Lauren Ha hopes to decrease late effects by promoting physical activity in survivors.

Kids’ cancer research is looking into the future to ensure not just survival, but a healthy, happy life. Lauren Ha’s work in exercise oncology hopes to decrease the late effects of treatment by promoting the importance of physical activity in survivors.

When kids are diagnosed with cancer, they are often exposed to harsh treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgeries. Such treatments at a young age not only affect growth and development, but also typically increase the survivors’ risks of suffering future chronic health conditions. Lauren explains:

When a child is cured of cancer it’s absolutely fantastic...But a lot of people don’t realise that the child is still likely to go through a lot of health problems beyond cancer.

Lauren is an accredited exercise physiologist, and a PhD candidate in the School of Health Sciences, UNSW Medicine & Health, and at the Behavioural Sciences Unit at the Kids Cancer Centre. Her research interests surround exercise oncology and public health.

There are about 800 to 1,000 children diagnosed with cancer each year. Over 80 per cent of them will survive the disease. But they go on to have up to 15 times higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to their peers.

This is where physical activity comes in.

- Lauren Ha

The iBounce digital health program

Lauren is being funded by The Kids’ Cancer Project to further test a program she’s just launched, called iBounce. She modified an already existing program, called iEngage©, to target survivors of childhood cancer in a home-setting. The program teaches children who’ve been through cancer about making regular movement a part of their lives. Lauren explains:

iBounce is a patient-centred intervention that engages young survivors in physical activity.

Amidst the drama of the hospital experience, exercise can often, understandably, take a back seat to survival.

After such a long time in hospital and having gone through harsh treatments, sometimes the last thing kids want to do is be physically active.

- Lauren Ha

Read more: The iBounce digital health program.

iBounce is all online, so users can connect via the app that connects to activity trackers...Not only do we teach them how to monitor their physical activity, but we also teach them how to further improve the amount they’re doing to ensure they’re being active enough.

Fun for the whole family

It’s not just about the kids, Lauren notes. The program also aims to involve family members, particularly parents, to ensure the child is surrounded by people who are championing the importance of exercise.

Kids and adults worldwide are not active enough...But it’s even more crucial for those who’ve been through cancer treatment to remain active. iBounce shows users how to do different types of exercise at home and engage family and friends.

A family takes part in some stretching exercises together in a living room.

They don’t have to come back to the hospital to be part of the program. They don’t have to go to a clinic, or a gym. They can do it in their own home, with their family.

During iBounce’s pilot program, parents highlighted the value in the conversations it prompted surrounding exercise and physical health with their child.

iBounce facilitated activities with the whole family and parents were able to join their child to exercise. Some parents noted that they didn’t realise how much fitness their child had lost, so iBounce was a program that got them talking about the importance of physical activity and healthy eating.

A family is outside in a park doing an exercise program together.

For parents with sick children, sometimes their own health isn’t a priority...They are often quite stressed, emotionally and financially. But making time to support the child to be physically active, even in passive ways like driving them to sport, can be an excellent start.

The road to thriving post-treatment

iBounce has already gone through pilot testing. This funding will help move Lauren’s research forward to the next stage.

The generosity of donors and funding from The Kids Cancer Project means so much for my project.

- Lauren Ha

I’m excited to collaborate with young survivors and their families, to listen to their lived experiences. I can’t wait to work with them to develop iBounce into a version that’s viable for all survivors to use, including those from culturally and linguistically diverse communities and rural areas.

Lauren will also be researching whether participating in the iBounce program improves a child’s confidence to exercise following cancer treatment. After missing a great deal of school and other social opportunities, post-treatment years can be difficult to navigate. There’s a strong possibility that having good levels of fitness and being involved in sport could go some way toward reducing their risk of future health problems.

We have found that more than 70 per cent of survivors don’t meet the recommended physical activity guidelines of at least 60 minutes per day. If we are able to increase even a small percentage of that, it would improve the lives of a lot of people.

Ultimately, this funding will support iBounce to empower, educate and engage survivors and their families on the protective health benefits of physical activity.

A father and his young son do some push-ups together in their living room.

iBounce will equip them with innovative tools to adopt healthy behaviours and decrease their risk of late effects.

- Lauren Ha

To find out more about iBounce, follow progress at the Behavioural Sciences Unit web page or Facebook page.

Follow Lauren’s research on Twitter @LaurenHa25.

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