Exercise may be helpful during cancer treatment

Key points to remember

  • Recent research has shown that exercise can help reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
  • Aerobic and resistance exercises have been shown to be particularly helpful for cancer patients.
  • Experts say the findings are helpful because there has been no exercise advice for patients currently undergoing cancer treatments.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has made new exercise recommendations for patients undergoing cancer treatment, with an emphasis on aerobic and resistance exercise.

The guidelines are the first evidence-based recommendations for exercise and weight management during cancer treatment and suggest that physical activity may help alleviate some of the side effects of treatment.

“There are many guidelines for nutrition, exercise and weight management in to prevent cancer,” lead study author Jennifer Ligibel, MD, a medical oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told Verywell. “But there is growing evidence that making changes during treatment could have an effect on how people behave during treatment.”

Exercise can reduce length of hospital stay

For the study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the researchers analyzed 52 scientific journals: 42 related to exercise, nine to diet and one to weight management. They also included 23 randomized clinical trials in their analysis.

The most common types of cancer included in the studies were breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancer.

Overall, the researchers found that exercising during cancer treatment helped patients improve their cardiorespiratory fitness, strength, and fatigue, among other benefits.

When lung cancer patients who exercised needed surgery, they spent less time in the hospital and had fewer complications than patients who did not exercise.

Based on these findings, ASCO decided to use the evidence to create exercise recommendations for patients currently being treated for cancer.

Is exercise okay for cancer patients?

Experts say the new evidence-based guidelines will help fill a gap in recommendations for people with cancer.

Jennifer Ligibel, MD

There is growing evidence that making changes during treatment could have an effect on how people behave during treatment.

—Jennifer Ligibel, MD

“There has never been a guideline that specifically focused on people undergoing chemotherapy, radiation therapy and perioperative treatments,” Ligibel said.

Catherine M. Alfano, PhD, one of the study’s co-authors and vice president of cancer care management and research at Northwell Health Cancer Institute, told Verywell that it’s information that patients want and need to know.

“Being treated for cancer makes many patients feel like they have no control over their health and this loss of control makes them very anxious,” Alfano said. “Patients are looking for things they can do to regain control and improve their long-term health and well-being while on treatment.”

Exercise and diet for cancer patients

The new guidelines address both exercise and diet considerations for people currently receiving cancer treatment.

The committee suggested that oncology providers recommend aerobic and resistance exercise to patients during treatment to reduce side effects associated with cancer treatments.

These exercises can have great benefits for those undergoing surgery for lung cancer, in particular.

“[Providers should] recommend preoperative exercises for patients who are scheduled for surgery for lung cancer, as this may reduce [the] length of hospital stay as well as postoperative complications,” Alfano said.

On the diet side, researchers did not find enough evidence to recommend or against keto or low-carb diets, low-fat diets, functional foods, or fasting diets for cancer patients.

Alfano said there was also not “sufficient evidence to support a recommendation for or against intentional interventions focused on weight loss or prevention of weight gain during active therapy in patients with cancer”.

How do aerobic and resistance exercises help cancer patients?

The study didn’t examine why aerobic and resistance training might be helpful — it only found a link between exercise and fewer side effects and better outcomes for cancer patients.

That said, experts have speculations about how aerobic and resistance exercise might benefit people being treated for cancer.

Nathan Parker, PhD, MPH, a researcher in the Department of Health Outcomes and Behavior at Moffitt Cancer Center, told Verywell that “both exercise modalities are very important, and together they provide the stimuli that the body needs. needs to improve or maintain health and well-being. -being.”

In general, Parker stated that “aerobic exercise will do more for improving or maintaining cardiorespiratory fitness, and resistance training will do more for muscle strength and maintaining lean body mass.”

It doesn’t have to be one or the other, though – Parker added that there are definitely “areas where the benefits of aerobic and resistance training overlap and synergize, c That’s why both contribute to a well-balanced exercise program.”

Scherezade K. Mama, DrPH, assistant professor of health disparities research at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, told Verywell that aerobic and resistance exercise “also helps reduce inflammation, comorbidities such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and frailty, which helps manage side effects of treatment, such as nausea and fatigue, and reduces the likelihood of hospitalization during treatment.

Why advice is needed

Physical exercise is important to offset the negative effects of cancer treatment as much as possible.

“Cancer and cancer treatments can lead to losses in aerobic capacity and muscle strength and endurance,” Parker said. “They can also lead to detrimental changes in body composition – losing lean body mass, sometimes while gaining or maintaining fat – and they involve symptoms and side effects that pose challenges to daily living, such as fatigue and neuropathy.”

Nathan Parker, PhD MPH

Exercising to improve outcomes during cancer treatment is empowering.

—Nathan Parker, PhD MPH

According to Parker, these changes can make it difficult to tolerate cancer treatments. But exercise “can help reverse or alleviate these challenges, helping people tolerate treatment and maintain their quality of life during and beyond cancer treatment.”

Physical activity can also help patients cope emotionally with cancer treatments.

“Exercise to improve outcomes during cancer treatment is empowering because it is something within the control of the individual that can help improve outcomes at a time when many things can feel out of control. “, Parker said.

Although exercise during cancer treatments is generally recommended, Ligibel said patients should discuss with their providers what’s right for them, especially if they’re considering starting a new exercise program.

What this means for you

If you are currently undergoing cancer treatment, ask your oncologist about exercising during your treatment. New research has shown that it can help reduce the side effects of treatment and help you cope.

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