For decades, many oncologists have remained reluctant to push patients to exercise, but the tide appears to be turning.
Walking for 30 minutes a day and practising yoga can help reduce fatigue in cancer patients and cut the risk of the disease spreading, coming back or resulting in death, research suggests.
Globally, more than 18 million people develop cancer every year. It is well known that being inactive raises your risk of various forms of the disease.
Now the world’s leading cancer researchers are learning more about the benefits of getting or staying active after being diagnosed. For decades, many oncologists and health professionals have remained reluctant to push patients to exercise in the wake of sometimes gruelling treatment regimes. But the tide appears to be turning.
Three studies presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the world’s largest cancer conference, add weight to growing evidence that physical activity can help, not hinder, patients.
“It was: ‘You’re sick, take it easy and rest,’” Dr Melissa Hudson, a leading expert in cancer survival, said at the conference in Chicago. Now, growing numbers of doctors are of the view that patients should resume exercise, even if only gradually at first, “sooner rather than later”.
The first study was a randomised control trial, the gold standard of medical studies, into the impact of yoga’s effect on inflammation. Inflammation can be a powerful force in cancer development, aiding and abetting tumour growth and spread around the body.
In the study, more than 500 cancer patients with an average age of 56 were recruited from across the US. All had received treatment for the disease between two months and five years earlier.
They were randomised to take up yoga or attend health education classes for a month. Each group took part in 75-minute sessions twice a week for four weeks.
The patients then underwent a series of blood tests. The research, led by the University of Rochester Medical Centre, found those who took up yoga had “significantly lower levels of pro-inflammatory markers” compared with patients in the other group.
“Our data suggest that yoga significantly reduces inflammation among cancer survivors,” the study’s authors wrote in a report published at the ASCO meeting.
“Clinicians should consider prescribing yoga for survivors experiencing inflammation, which may lead to a high chronic toxicity burden and increased risk of progression, recurrence, and second cancers.”
Karen Mustian, the lead researcher, added: “What I say to doctors is you should recommend to them [cancer patients] yoga as an option and you should help them find places in their community where they can do it.”
Twenty years ago, she added, there was a tendency to think all cancer patients should take it easy, but now most doctors recommend exercise. “I think oncology professionals have bought into it.”
In the second study, also led by the University of Rochester Medical Centre, researchers examined yoga’s impact on fatigue and quality of life.
A total of 173 patients aged 60 or older were enrolled on the trial. Again, the participants were split into two groups. They attended 75-minute yoga or health education classes twice a week for four weeks.
Yoga was found to be better at helping relieve fatigue and maintain quality of life, the research found.
A third study found cancer patients who are active can reduce their risk of dying by almost a fifth.
The six-year research, led by Dr Jurema Telles de Oliveira Lima from the Instituto de Medicina Integral in Brazil, involved more than 2,600 cancer patients in Brazil.
Patients were ranked by their activity levels, with “active” classed as going for at least one 30-minute walk five days a week.
The results showed the risk of death was higher in those with a sedentary lifestyle. After 180 days, 90 per cent of people in the active group were still alive, compared with 74 per cent in the sedentary group.
Lima said anything cancer patients could do to avoid sitting or lying down for long periods, no matter how little, could be helpful. Even performing light chores or carrying shopping home could make a difference, she said.
“We also have to educate the family,” she added. “Because it’s very common that the family wants to protect the older person when they have cancer, like: ‘I’m not going to let him do anything or go anywhere.’ We have to tell the family that it [physical activity] can be best for the patient and also on a psychological level as well.”
Jim Burt, the executive director of programmes at the UK’s National Academy for Social Prescribing, who was not involved with the studies, said: “This research supports the growing body of evidence that demonstrates the vast and varied benefits of exercise for physical and mental health.”