Exercise Helps Cancer Patients and Oncology Professionals are Urged to Take Action

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In the past, cancer patients were typically told to rest as they went through their treatment and recovery. But not anymore. With a growing body of research finding that exercise can help cancer patients and long-term survivors, a new paper calls for oncology professionals to take action to help all people living with and beyond cancer be as active as is possible.


The paper was published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

AICR is one of many health organizations that recommend cancer survivors follow the exercise recommendations for the general population, if and when they are able. There are an estimated 17 million cancer survivors in the United States today. By 2040, that number is expected to reach 26 million.

Raising awareness, connecting patients
The call to action stems from a panel of experts convened by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) who evaluated the recent research. In 2010,  ACSM released its first guidance for cancer survivors to – at the least – avoid inactivity.  A decade later, the ACSM roundtable of experts found additional, stronger evidence that exercise training is safe during and after treatments and likely offers cancer-related and overall health benefits.

“In 2008 with what available research was there we could say exercise is safe, it generally improved [some] outcomes and be active as much as you can,” said Kristin Campbell, PT, PhD, the director of the Clinical Exercise Physiology Laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and one of the ACSM roundtable experts. “The big change 10 years on is we have so much more information that shows there are key outcomes exercise is beneficial for.” Now there is a need to raise awareness among clinicians – and patients – on the benefits of exercise and ultimately, connect patients with physical therapists or other fitness professionals who can help. “We want physicians to plant the seed that exercise is important,” said Campbell.

The paper is one of three by the ACSM panel focusing on cancer and exercise, including updated exercise guidelines for patients. It claims that health care and fitness professionals should use custom exercise prescriptions that best meet the needs, preferences and abilities of individuals living with and beyond cancer. Professionals and scientists should continue to conduct research that will help drive the integration of exercise into the standard of care for cancer.

Part of an overall healthy lifestyle
“These papers further highlight the importance of physical activity in cancer prevention and care,” said Nigel Brockton, PhD, AICR Vice President of Research. “There is strong evidence that physical activity reduces the risk of cancer, and growing evidence that it can help survivors,” says Brockton. “Physical activity should be part of an overall package of behaviors including maintaining healthy body weight, eating a healthful diet and low (if any) alcohol consumption, as described in our 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations.”

About 80 percent of US adults do not meet the guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities, according to government data.  Studies show that the majority of cancer survivors also do not meet exercise recommendations. A 2008 survey found that only 30 to 47 percent of survivors were meeting the physical activity recommendations.

There are many reasons why cancer patients may not be active, including side effects of treatment and behavior habits. As noted in the paper, research indicates that the lack of explicit recommendations from clinicians is also a critical reason.

“We know exercise is good and we’re trying to give people working in the field information on what type of exercise is the most beneficial and get the word out to everyone in the cancer system,” said Campbell, the lead author on the paper focusing on survivorship. “There are services out there related to exercise. It’s important people know.”

Oncology clinicians and patients can search for exercise programs at the ACSM initiative site, Moving through Cancer. For survivors who have finished treatment, you can sign up for AICR’S iTHRIVE Plan that offers an online personalized wellness plan designed to help survivors heal from cancer treatment. Stay up to date on the latest research on how lifestyle plays in a role in survivorship with AICR’s monthly online newsletter, Recharge.

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Author: Mya Nelson

Mya R. Nelson is at American Institute for Cancer Research, where she writes about the research in the field.

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