Exercise can be beneficial for cancer patients, as it’s been linked with reduced fatigue, an improvement in body and brain function, a lessening of depression and anxiety, and a strengthened body and immune system. A new study finds that such benefits may occur regardless of when in the treatment cycle a patient takes on an exercise routine.
Research recently published in JACC: CardioOncology examined whether it was most beneficial for patients to exercise during or after chemotherapy. The team found that cardiorespiratory fitness was strong in both cases, despite when they started. However, those who started during chemotherapy reported less fatigue and had fewer declines in a variety of fitness metrics just after treatment.
Dr. Annemiek Walenkamp, senior author and medical oncologist at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands, says, “These findings suggest that the most optimal timing of physical exercise is during chemotherapy. However, initiating a physical exercise program after chemotherapy is a viable alternative when exercising during chemotherapy is not possible.”
To determine the benefits of exercise timing, the team had 266 patients with breast, colon, and testicular cancers or B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma take part in a 24-week exercise intervention. They either began this exercise routine during chemotherapy or after. Activities included moderate to vigorous stationary biking, resistance training with weight machines and free weights, and badminton. After the trials were wrapped, the team took a look at participants’ VO2peak, a measurement of cardiorespiratory fitness that can decline up to 25% during treatment. They also examined other fitness metrics and exercise’s impact on long-term cardiorespiratory fitness.
The team found that just after chemotherapy, those who had begun exercising during treatment reported less fatigue and more physical activity. They also saw fewer declines in their VO2peak, health-related quality of life, and muscle strength. Meanwhile, three months after chemo, the group that started their exercising after treatment had similar benefits to those who had begun sooner. Both groups were also back to their baseline cardiorespiratory fitness one year after their training wrapped.
The research team hopes these results encourage oncologists to promote exercise among their patients.
Dr. Walenkamp says, “We hope our findings motivate health care providers to guide patients to engage in exercise interventions during anti-cancer treatment.”
There is another good reason for patients to get into a fitness routine: Regular exercise has also been linked with a lower risk of cancer recurrence.
So which exercises are best for survivors? The American Cancer Society provides some guidelines. They say patients should build up to 150-300 minutes of moderate or 75-150 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. Each session should be at least 10 minutes long. Resistance training and stretching exercises should also be done at least two days each week.