A cancer diagnosis can be emotionally crippling, and the treatment that follows can be even more crippling, both physically and emotionally. Along these lines, cancer patients are often told to hold off on activity during and after treatment so they can have ample time for rest. But is this correct? Should we be separating cancer and exercise?
While this advice came with good intentions, newer studies are revealing that doing the opposite may be best for many cancer patients. We have already discussed the issues with weight gain and outcomes for breast cancer patients,1 and exercising both during and after cancer treatment may be just what a woman needs to help beat her diagnosis. In fact, individuals with some cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer, may want to safely increase their activity levels after their diagnosis.
Physical Activity and Breast Cancer Treatment
To my knowledge, no randomized trials exist utilizing exercise as an actual treatment for breast cancer, but many studies have shown that those who exercise have better outcomes. For instance, breast cancer survivors who are more active and engage in moderate physical activity live longer.2 Even as little as three to five hours of walking per week can significantly increase a woman’s chance of surviving her breast cancer diagnosis.3
Prostate Cancer Patients Fare the Same
Outcomes for men with prostate cancer – the most common cancer affecting men – have a similar relationship with exercise and increased activity levels. When the activity levels of over 2,000 men with prostate cancer were assessed for nearly two decades, those men who were active lived significantly longer.4 Men who walked 90 or more minutes per week at a brisk pace saw their risk of dying cut in half when compared to those men who did not walk, or did so at a very slow pace. Most notably, men who engaged in three or more hours of vigorous activity had a 61% lower risk of dying from their prostate cancer when compared to those men who engaged in less than one hour of vigorous exercise per week. Finally, men who exercised vigorously before and after their diagnosis had the lowest risk of dying from their prostate cancer.
Other data reveal that the key may be in the “briskness” of the walk.5 Three or more hours of brisk walking per week seemed to be the key mark again, with this amount of activity correlating with a nearly 60% reduced risk of prostate cancer progression. This study also found that if the walking was brisk, the duration may be less important. You’ll notice that intensity seems to be important in many of these studies, and most of us should engage in a mixture of intense activity and walking.
Yet, any kind of safe activity may be beneficial. Other studies reveal that men who walk or ride a bike for 20 or more minutes per day or exercise for at least an hour per week will live longer after their prostate cancer diagnosis. The same study revealed that men with prostate cancer who perform household work for an hour or more per day live longer overall. The women reading this may want to pass that statistic along to their husbands!6
Cancer or No Cancer — Exercise More, Feel Better
The improvement in the quality of life that exercise provides is well known. For some reason, we often forget that exercise can provide the same benefits for the cancer patient. Fourteen studies have revealed that exercise significantly improves quality of life in breast cancer patients.7 It also significantly improved physical functioning of women with breast cancer and improves their peak oxygen consumption, while reducing their fatigue.
Women who engage in both aerobic and resistance exercise – again that mix of activities – with weights soon after their breast cancer treatment experience large health-related improvements.8 They also experience these improvements much faster than those women who wait to start exercising. Men who engaged in an eight-week cardiovascular exercise program during their treatment for prostate cancer with radiation therapy saw an improvement in their cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, muscle strength, and overall quality of life.9 They also experienced less fatigue, the most common side effect of radiation therapy.
Living longer is great, but living longer and feeling better is a whole different level of happiness.
Cancer and Exercise – Keep Moving
Men with prostate cancer who exercise more live longer and feel better.
Women with breast cancer who exercise more live longer and feel better.
Studies have already shown exercise to be as useful as medications for the prevention of coronary heart disease and diabetes and better than medications for patients who have experienced a stroke.10 If exercise, a free treatment without side effects, can do the same for cancer patients, isn’t it time to give it a go?
Cancer treatment is no walk in the park. It is clearly a physically and emotionally taxing time for men and women alike. However, whether it is during treatment or after, maybe we should take more walks in the park — and vigorous ones at that.
- Champ CE, Volek JS, Siglin J, Jin L, Simone NL. Weight Gain, Metabolic Syndrome, and Breast Cancer Recurrence: Are Dietary Recommendations Supported by the Data? Int J Breast Cancer. 2012;2012:9. doi:10.1155/2012/506868.
- Sternfeld B, Weltzien E, Quesenberry CP, et al. Physical activity and risk of recurrence and mortality in breast cancer survivors: findings from the LACE study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2009;18(1):87-95. doi:10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-08-0595.
- Holmes MD, Chen WY, Feskanich D, Kroenke CH, Colditz GA. Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. JAMA. 2005;293(20):2479-2486. doi:10.1001/jama.293.20.2479.
- Kenfield SA, Stampfer MJ, Giovannucci E, Chan JM. Physical activity and survival after prostate cancer diagnosis in the health professionals follow-up study. J Clin Oncol. 2011;29(6):726-732. doi:10.1200/JCO.2010.31.5226.
- Richman EL, Kenfield SA, Stampfer MJ, Paciorek A, Carroll PR, Chan JM. Physical activity after diagnosis and risk of prostate cancer progression: data from the cancer of the prostate strategic urologic research endeavor. Cancer Res. 2011;71(11):3889-3895. doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-10-3932.
- Bonn SE, Sjölander A, Lagerros YT, et al. Physical activity and survival among men diagnosed with prostate cancer. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2015;24(1):57-64. doi:10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-14-0707.
- McNeely ML, Campbell KL, Rowe BH, Klassen TP, Mackey JR, Courneya KS. Effects of exercise on breast cancer patients and survivors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. CMAJ. 2006;175(1):34-41. doi:10.1503/cmaj.051073.
- Milne HM, Wallman KE, Gordon S, Courneya KS. Effects of a combined aerobic and resistance exercise program in breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2008;108(2):279-288. doi:10.1007/s10549-007-9602-z.
- Monga U, Garber SL, Thornby J, et al. Exercise prevents fatigue and improves quality of life in prostate cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2007;88(11):1416-1422. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2007.08.110.
- Naci H, Ioannidis JPA. Comparative effectiveness of exercise and drug interventions on mortality outcomes: metaepidemiological study. BMJ. 2013;347(oct01_1):f5577. doi:10.1136/bmj.f5577.
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