Five things everyone should know about exercise and cancer survival.

1. Physical activity helps with the effects of cancer treatments.

  • In a systematic review which looked at physical activity interventions in cancer survivors – during and after treatments – results showed that physical activity had a significant positive effect on survivors. Upper and lower body strength appeared to be majorly affected, while fatigue and breast cancer-specific concerns seemed to be moderately affected. Exercise was generally well-tolerated during and after treatment, with minimal adverse effects.
  • After reviewing research results from several cancer survivor groups, a panel of experts at the American College of Sports Medicine concluded that exercise training is safe during and after cancer treatments, and results in improvements in physical functioning, quality of life, and cancer-related fatigue.1

2. Currently, lack of physical activity among people with cancer is high.

  • In general, cancer survivors display low levels of physical activity. A study in Canada reported that less than 22% of cancer survivors are physically active. 2

3. Physical activity helps improve outcomes for people with cancer.

  • Studies have indicated a relationship between higher physical activity levels and lower mortality rates in cancer survivors. A recent meta-analysis reported that, post-diagnosis, physical activity reduced breast cancer deaths by 34%, and all other cancer-related causes of mortality by 41%. It also helped to reduce disease recurrence by 24%.3
  • Studies also have investigated the volume of exercise necessary to help reduce cancer. The Nurses’ Health Study reported 50% fewer cancer recurrences in women who exercised more than three hours per week. Among people who have had colorectal cancer, a study found a 50% lower rate of recurrence – and related death – in those who exercised more than six hours per week.4

4. The link between physical activity and cancer.

  • Several large population studies have identified a strong association between lower levels of physical activity and higher cancer mortality. Walking or cycling an average of 30 minutes per day has been associated with a 34% lower rate of cancer death and a 33% improved cancer survival.5
  • An increasing number of studies indicate that physical activity can reduce the incidence of cancer. World Health Organization recommendations say that undertaking 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week can reduce the risk of breast and colon cancers. The same amount of exercise can also reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease.6
  • According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer: “Physical activity is one risk factor for non-communicable diseases which is modifiable and therefore of great potential public health significance.”7

 5. Physical therapy can play an important role in cancer rehabilitation.

  • Having and being treated for cancer can cause long-term side effects that can compromise a person’s quality of life and overall ability to function. Research has shown that physical therapy during and after cancer treatment helps speed up post-treatment recovery, boost the immune system, and reduce fatigue.
  • Physical therapy can also help reduce secondary complications following treatments, such as decreased bone density, muscle wasting, and increased fatigue. It can help reduce scar formation, and lessen range of motion loss, as well as correct muscle imbalances that may cause postural changes.
  • Physical therapy helps patients maintain and/or rebuild strength and endurance to resume functional independence and resume their previous level of function. Evidence has shown that even small amounts of exercise can help reduce long-term post-treatment side effects, decrease anxiety, and increase a patient’s sense of control over cancer rehab.

1Speck RM, Courneya KS et al. “An update of controlled physical activity trials in cancer survivors: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” J. Cancer Surviv. 2010 Jun;4(2):87-100.
2 Courneya KS, Katzmarzyk PT et al. “Physical activity and obesity in Canadian cancer survivors: population-based estimates from the 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey.” Cancer 2008 Jun;112(11):2475-82.
3Ibrahim EM, Al-Homaidh A. “Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis: meta-analysis of published studies.” Med Oncol. 2010 Apr 22.
4Holmes, MD, Chen WY et al. “Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis.” JAMA 2005 293: 2479-2486.
5Orsini N, Mantzoros C S et al. “Association of physical activity with cancer incidence, mortality, and survival: a population based study of men.” British Journal of Cancer. 2008 98:1864-1869
6Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health, released by the World Health Organization in 2011.
Note: the information presented in items 1-4 were provided by WCPT and produced by Julie Walsh-Broderick.