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Plan of Action

Exercise can help those with cancer survive — and thrive

During cancer treatment, taking a nap is probably more appealing than going for a brisk walk or heading to yoga class, but working up a sweat or flexing those muscles might be just what the doctor ordered.

Exercise has significant benefits for cancer patients, studies show. Workouts can strengthen immune function, increase appetite and help manage nausea and fatigue. Exercise also reduces the risk for developing certain cancers, decreases the likelihood of recurrence and, in some cases, improves survival rates.

“We’ve seen consistent results showing a reduction in cancer risk by increasing levels of physical activity,” explains Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D., director of the Division of Cancer Etiology in the Department of Population Sciences at City of Hope. “Exercise has a positive impact on every system of your body, and studies have shown that it decreases the risk of dying from at least two major types of cancer [breast and colorectal].”

Better Survival Rates

Researchers at City of Hope found that breast cancer patients who engaged in moderate exercise throughout their lives had a 35 percent lower risk of dying of the disease than less-active breast cancer patients. Overweight women who exercised at moderate levels had a 48 percent lower risk of breast cancer death. In both populations, vigorous exercise further increased survival rates.

One explanation, according to Bernstein, is that elevated levels of hormones like estrogen and insulin are believed to be linked to breast cancer. Exercise suppresses these hormones, which can lower the risk of breast cancer-related deaths. Exercise might affect inflammation and hormones called growth factors, which may also help.

As for colorectal cancer, patients who regularly exercised after completing treatment for the disease had up to 50 percent lower risk of recurrence and death, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Take Your Breath Away

Breaking a sweat doesn’t just improve survival rates. Physical activity also reduces likelihood of developing certain cancers. Bernstein points to research indicating that the risk for breast, colorectal, lung and ovarian cancers is lower for those who regularly exercise.

Training for a marathon — or even a 5K race — isn’t required to reap the benefits. “You don’t have to go out and run miles, but you should be active for at least three to four hours per week,” Bernstein says.

“You should be working hard enough to be huffing and puffing and a little out of breath.”

Work out in the living room with an exercise DVD, take a brisk walk around the block, join a group exercise class or ride the stationary bike at the gym. Any type of exercise that increases your heart rate can offer protective health benefits. Even strength-training exercises such as lifting light weights or using resistance bands may be beneficial, Bernstein says.

“Exercise will help you fare better and live longer,” says Bernstein. “That’s enough of a reason to get active.”

— By Jodi Helmer

Helping to Heal

City of Hope’s Lymphedema Program uses rehabilitation techniques to ease this treatment side effect. Available with a doctor’s referral. For information, please call 626-256-HOPE, ext. 63328

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