WASHINGTON, DC — New studies presented today at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) Research Conference provide evidence that exercise is safe and likely offers powerful benefits for breast and prostate cancer patients, both during and after treatment.
The studies offer new insights into how aerobic and resistance exercise during treatment may prevent or delay many of the physical and mental effects that survivors experience. For example, women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer may face significant decline in aerobic capacity, placing these survivors at heightened risk of cardiovascular disease.
“The cancer experience – from diagnosis through treatment – has persistent effects that can last for years,” said Brian Focht, PhD, study author and Director of the Exercise and Behavioral Medicine Lab at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. “As more and more people are successfully getting through cancer treatments, survivors are experiencing significant effects that meaningfully compromise their physical function and quality of life, along with heightening their risk of obesity and other chronic diseases.”
What we are seeing in our studies is there are clear benefits to cancer patients implementing an exercise program as soon as possible.”
Today, there are more than 15.5 million US cancer survivors and that number is expected to increase to 20 million in the next decade. Current exercise guidelines for cancer survivors are broad, stating that survivors should aim to be active. But little is known about how exercise affects each cancer type and the effect on patients who are undergoing treatment.
For the breast cancer study, published in the Journal of Community Support Oncology, Focht and colleagues reviewed 17 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) related to exercise interventions among women undergoing chemotherapy or radiation. RCTs compare one group where the women were put on an exercise regimen to a group receiving standard care.
Trial interventions ranged from 3 to 6 months, both supervised and home based. The study found that, on average, breast cancer patients who were exercising experienced improvements in muscular strength, cardiovascular functioning and quality of life compared to the non-exercising patients.
“Given the incredible amount of variety from study to study,” said Focht, “women were able to safely exercise during treatment and on top of that, it produced meaningful improvements in terms of quality of life and fitness outcomes.”
The prostate cancer study, presented in advance of publication, was a pilot RCT involving 32 men undergoing hormone therapy, called androgen deprivation therapy (ADT). Side effects of ADT include loss of muscle, increase in fat mass and osteoporosis. Risk for diabetes and heart disease also increases for these cancer survivors.
Half of the men in the study were randomly assigned to a plant-based diet and a strength training and aerobic exercise group. The other half received standard care. At the start of the study, then at 8 weeks and 12 weeks, researchers measured the patients’ body composition, mobility and strength.
“At the end of three months, there was an astonishing level of improvement among the intervention group,” said Focht. A timed walk test of about a quarter of a mile (400 meters) showed the men who were eating healthier and exercising were walking three to four times more quickly than the group receiving standard care. “Functional ability increased dramatically and along with that, their quality of life — their satisfaction — also increased.”
Functional ability measures included a lift and carry test, much like if you picked up a laundry basket and walked it back and forth across a room.
There were also significant changes favoring the intervention group for body composition. Those in the lifestyle intervention lost 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) and 1 percent of body fat after three months; the standard care group gained almost 1 percent of body fat.
The study suggests that healthy eating and exercise “not only attenuated what we would see among men undergoing ADT it actually reversed it, with the caveat being this is a small scale study and needs to be replicated in a large trial,” said Focht.
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In addition to these studies, other research on exercise and cancer to be presented at the AICR Research Conference include:
- Findings of a pilot study on exercise and the gut that suggests greater gut microbial diversity among participants who reported being the most physically active compared to the most inactive.
- The effect of childhood and teenage physical activity on adult breast cancer risk decades later.
- Effects of exercise interventions during different treatments in breast cancer. Fairman CM, Focht BC, Lucas AR, Lustberg MB. J Community Support Oncol. 2016 May;14(5):200-9.
- Focht, Brian C.; Lucas, Alexander R.; Grainger, Elizabeth; Simpson, Christina; Fairman, Ciaran M.; Thomas-Ahner, Jennifer; Clinton, Steven K. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 48(5S):515, May 2016. Effects of a Combined Exercise and Dietary Intervention on Mobility Performance in Prostate Cancer