A new prescription for cancer: Exercise

Updated guidance details how physical activity, tailored to the individual, can reduce side effects and improve quality of life.

“Take it easy” and “don’t overexert yourself” were common refrains for people with cancer until research made clear that exercising is safe during and after treatment.

Photo: Cancer survivor Bill Westmoreland takes part in an exercise study at OHSU funded by the National Institutes of Health. (OHSU/Joe Rojas-Burke)Now, drawing on the most current scientific evidence, experts have published detailed guidance for clinicians prescribing exercises that can improve daily functioning and quality of life, reduce symptoms such as cancer-related fatigue, and potentially help individuals live longer.

“Exercising has a role across the entire cancer continuum,” said Kerri Winters-Stone, Ph.D., FACSM, one of the authors of the new guidance and the comprehensive review supporting it. “We now have an obligation to start moving exercise into the standard of care for cancer patients.”

Winters-Stone is co-leader of the Knight Cancer Institute’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program and holds the Elnora E. Thompson Distinguished Professorship in the OHSU School of Nursing.

The new guidance was developed by the American College of Sports Medicine, which gathered experts from 17 organizations, including the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, to review scientific evidence and offer recommendations about the benefits of exercise for prevention, treatment, recovery and improved survival.

The work is a major overhaul of the groups’ previous recommendations published in 2010, when the authors said there was not enough evidence to make specific exercise prescriptions. Their advice was general and largely followed the physical activity guidelines for adults with chronic conditions. Survivors were urged to “avoid inactivity” and be as physically active as possible. But, this recommendation wasn’t actionable given cancer survivors are more inactive than people who haven’t had cancer.

Since then, researchers have amassed strong evidence to show how exercising during and after cancer treatment improves fatigue, anxiety, depression, physical function and quality of life. Significantly, contrary to widely held assumption, they also found that exercise does not exacerbate lymphedema, a painful swelling condition that can result from surgery for many types of cancer, including breast cancer. The new guidance is detailed enough to help fitness and health care providers to prescribe specific doses of aerobic and resistance training for individual patients. OHSU News has the full story.

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