(Reuters Health) - Exercise may help improve quality of life for some cancer patients during treatment as well as afterward, a new analysis of previous research suggests.
Even though physical activity isn’t routinely prescribed as part of usual care for cancer patients, the analysis found a variety of activities such as walking, swimming, cycling and strength or stability training associated with better physical, mental, emotional and social functioning.
“Most patients, oncologists and surgical oncologists assume that patients with cancer should rest, especially if they are treated with chemotherapy,” said study co-author Dr. Arnaud Vincent, a neurosurgeon at Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
“However, exercise has a lot of beneficial effects in healthy people as we know by now, so why not for patients treated for cancer? Exercise can always be adapted to the situation of the patient, and even aerobic exercise or breathing exercises can be performed in bed or in a wheelchair,” Vincent added by email.
To assess whether exercise might benefit cancer patients, Vincent and co-author Jasper Gerritsen examined data from 16 previously published studies, most of which randomly assigned some participants to do physical activity and others to receive only usual care.
Cancer types varied across the trials. Five studies involved breast cancer patients, while two focused on people with lymphoma. Six included people with a variety of tumor types.
Overall, across all of the studies combined, the 877 patients assigned to exercise reported significantly better quality of life than the people in the control groups that didn’t follow the fitness routines, the researchers report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Significant improvements were also reported in relation to peak oxygen consumption, self-esteem, physical functioning, fatigue, length of hospital stay and general practitioner visits and social functioning.
The frequency of exercise varied between two and five times a week. Many of the studies provided patients with supervision during workouts or gave patients routines to follow at home. Exercising five times a week didn’t appear significantly better than doing activities two or three times a week, the analysis found.
The timing of exercise did matter, however. It appeared to be more beneficial when patients started fitness routines during treatment rather than waiting until afterward. Patients who exercised during treatment experienced improvements in both physical and mental health, while people who started later had only gains in physical fitness.
One shortcoming of the analysis is that many of the studies were small and included a wide variety of exercise options and types of cancer patients, making it difficult to determine which specific fitness interventions might benefit people with specific tumor types.
While patients shouldn’t modify their cancer treatments to make exercise easier, they can tailor physical activities to their circumstances and make it more feasible to manage even with the symptoms of the disease and the side effects of treatment, said Kerry Courneya, a fitness researcher at the University of Alberta in Canada who wasn’t involved in the study.
“They can modify their exercise program by reducing the intensity (e.g. slower walking) or the duration or frequency,” Courneya said by email. “They can also wait and exercise on days they feel good rather than push themselves on the days they feel sick.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/1Ry4fxZ British Journal of Sports Medicine, online December 30, 2015.