When you read about the health benefits of exercise for cancer survivors it’s common to lump all exercise together. After all, there’s no bad form of exercise.
A new review of the research now suggests that lifting weights, sit-ups and other forms of resistance exercises can help survivors both during and after treatment gain muscle strength, reduce body fat, and improve fatigue.
The improved effects seen with arm strength and body fat were most pronounced in survivors who engaged in low to moderate intensity exercises compared to those of higher intensity.
Doing resistance exercises at least two times per week led to survivors able to increase the amount of weight lifted, on average, 34 pounds (15.5 kilograms) for legs and 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms) for arms.
The study was published in the early online issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
For the analysis, researchers found 14 relevant randomized controlled trials, often considered the gold standard of research. Each study compared one group of survivors receiving resistance training with another group not doing any resistance exercises. Studies included those who had been diagnosed with cancers of the breast, prostate, and head and neck, both during and after treatment.
Resistance training interventions ranged from 12 weeks to a year, and included a range of muscle-strengthening exercises, from bicep curls and bench presses to elastic bands and sit-ups.
In looking at muscle strength, body fat and fatigue, the most pronounced improvements of resistance exercises was seen in both arm and leg muscle strength. Fewer studies looked at fatigue, four of them, but the analysis found that resistance training did improve fatigue compared to those who were not strength training. The exercises also appeared to lead to improvements in lead body mass.
The benefits with low to moderate-intensity resistance training, two days per week could be important for cancer patients who are unable to lift relatively heavy weights for higher numbers of repetitions, note the authors.