Study: Exercise is Safe and Effective for Cancer Survivors

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SEATTLE—A study of community-based exercise for cancer survivors that focused on strength training found such exercise is safe and effective in terms of physical and psychosocial benefit. The findings are published online in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship.

 Corresponding author Karen Syrjala, PhD, co-director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Survivorship Program, led the study of 221 cancer survivors who took part in a 12-week “Exercise and Thrive” program offered in conjunction with Seattle-area YMCAs. Overall, the study found the classes helpful for improving fatigue, insomnia, physical function, musculoskeletal symptoms, mental health, social support and physical activity. Additionally, participants had notable improvement in blood pressure, upper and lower body strength, walking endurance and flexibility.

The program focused on strength building because that is the area of greatest need and potential benefit for many cancer survivors. “Cancer can cause loss of muscle mass and result in fatigue. Strength training is needed to rebuild this muscle and to generate energy,” Syrjala said.

The study found a high rate of effectiveness for those who continued with the exercise classes, and relatively few people dropped out. “When people are tired they tend to want to rest until they feel better; and then resting becomes a habit. The support element is essential to their sticking with an exercise program,” she said.

Learning to stick with an exercise program is important for cancer survivors, Syrjala said, because studies have shown they have a higher rate of being sedentary compared to the general population. “Many people who were active before cancer become inactive afterward, and those where were inactive before are very unlikely to become active after cancer,” she said.

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