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Studies Show Exercise Can Benefit Patients with Cancer

Photo credit: Mass General

If you have cancer and suffer from CRF (cancer-related fatigue), the last thing on your mind is exercise. Understandably, you might think that exercising would make you even more tired, but recent studies have shown just the opposite. Following an exercise routine can be good for cancer patients – and not just those with CRF.

“The growing evidence base for exercise for patients with cancer is impressive,” says Dr. Ryan Nipp, MD, MPH, an oncologist and health services researcher for the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Speaking at the 2017 meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in August, he claimed that exercise may even help boost the effectiveness of chemotherapy, especially if patients exercise while they are going through treatment.

It may seem counter-intuitive for patients with CRF to get out and start moving more, but Dr. Nipp says he is not referring to marathon or strength training. Just modest levels of exercise over a relatively short period of time can reduce CRF symptoms.

“Simply walking 15 to 20 minutes a day can dramatically benefit these patients, relative to all the side effects they’re experiencing, the cancer, and the chemotherapy,” Dr. Nipp says.

During the ASCO meeting, researchers presented data that supports the theory that exercise benefits cancer patients. It compared data from 113 unique randomized trials with more than 11,000 participants and showed that while there was no significant change in CRF with drug therapy alone, there was when combined with exercise.

The best news is that positive results appeared in a short amount of time – just a few weeks – when patients included moderate exercise in their cancer treatment plan.

“If we’re going to deliver the highest-quality care and try to improve the quality of life of our patients, we should try to continue to encourage exercise and simple activity,” Dr. Nipp says.

Many doctors and researchers now believe that exercise can benefit all cancer patients, regardless of their type of cancer, and are including it in their treatment plans. The Massachusetts Hospital Cancer Center is one facility working towards that goal; the Center’s Px website provides patients, families, and friends with services that help physically like yoga, qigong, and tai chi. All are gentle forms of exercise and relaxation that not only help physically, but can also reduce anxiety and stress, improve self-esteem, and quality of life.

Other forms of exercise – swimming, cycling, strength, and stability training – can also benefit a patient’s physical, mental, emotional, and social health. Exercise can improve balance, lowering the risk of falls, and broken bones. For those who have been bedridden, introducing exercise can prevent muscles from atrophying and improve blood flow. By strengthening the body, exercise can make patients less dependent on others. It can also lessen symptoms of nausea and fatigue that often accompany chemotherapy.

Simply put, the benefits of exercise are too good to pass up – especially for cancer patients.

For more information, contact the Cancer Center or see what services are available on the Px website.