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Exercise as cancer treatment

Evidence grows to support the benefits of exercise as a cancer treatment.


Updated July 06, 2010

Growing evidence seems to support the benefits of exercise as a possible treatment for cancer. Several studies have examined the relationship between exercise, rehabilitation and quality of life in cancer patients and reported positive findings.

Studies have followed women undergoing breast cancer treatment who added moderate exercise to their treatment regimen. In most studies women exercised at a moderate intensity (60-85 percent of maximal heart rate) for twenty to thirty minutes, three times per week from four to twelve weeks. The exercise programs included bicycle ergometer and walking programs.

These studies have found that overall, exercise had a positive effect on physical and psychological functioning of cancer patients while in treatment. These benefits include the following objective and self-reported findings:

  • increased functional capacity and VO2Max
  • decreased body fat
  • increased lean muscle mass
  • decreased nausea and fatigue
  • improved natural defense mechanisms
  • improved sense of control
  • improved mood
  • improved self-esteem
  • self reported improved quality of life

Other studies found that exercising cancer patients had improved work capacity, lower heart rates at given exercise intensity, increased maximum workloads and time to exhaustion than did non-exercising cancer patients.

Psychological changes, including a decrease in total mood disturbances, decrease in depression and fewer problems sleeping were noted between the exercise and non-exercise groups.

A review of the literature shows some evidence that exercise rehabilitation has a beneficial effect on the physical and psychological well-being of patients with breast cancer. However, more focused studies are needed to draw specific conclusions. While these results must be considered with some degree of caution, it would suggest that performing moderate exercise can provide great benefit and little risk to cancer patients.


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