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Exercise programs provide far-reaching benefits to cancer survivors, Rutgers study says

 In the Rutgers study, participants were asked to walk everyday in 10 minute increments or longer. The increments were adjusted based on whether the participant was being actively treated for cancer or had already been treated.  – Photo by istockphoto

A new Rutgers study found that aerobic exercises, such as walking programs, could help cancer survivors — specifically those who had breast cancer — fight against fatigue, stabilize their weight and decrease systemic inflammation.

Rita Musanti, lead author and assistant professor at Rutgers School of Nursing, said researchers only recently began studying the relationship between exercise and its benefits for cancer survivors.

“Starting in the 1990s, it was the first time that exercise was used to alleviate some of the symptoms that cancer patients had related to chemotherapy. In those early studies they found that what exercise helped the most with was fatigue,” Musanti said.

Further studies were conducted in the beginning of the 2000s, she said. These studies were broadened to more fields in epidemiology, the study of diseases, and found that individuals who had been diagnosed with breast or colorectal cancer who exercised regularly had a decreased risk of the disease recurring. 

Researchers eventually became more interested in the benefits of exercise as more studies were done, as they reinforced the idea that exercise played a factor in alleviating cancer-like systems, Musanti said. 

Regarding the walking program in her study, she said participants were prescribed to walk every day in increments of 10 minutes or more. As they walked, she would take into account what the patient could tolerate and also their moderate pace. Musanti said the study also relied on whether the person was being actively treated for cancer or if they had already completed treatment, so the walking increments were adjusted around their capabilities.

In the study, the amount of exercise the patients did also had to be monitored in order to avoid causing excessive fatigue. Musanti said that for the observational studies that had previously been conducted, because they were epidemiological studies, they were done with thousands of people over time, including a large population of people over a 10-year period. There had also been smaller-scale studies that included up to several hundred people, which showed the range of data that provided evidence of the benefits of exercise, especially community-based programs.

“Community-based programs that are specifically focused on cancer survivors are helpful because there are concerns related to cancer survivors, and the type and amount of exercise that they can do, if they have complications from their treatment,” she said. “You have people that are knowledgeable about cancer and exercise, so it reduces the risk and it’s safer for patients.” 

Even with the studies done to date, Musanti said that researchers were still unsure of how exercise helps to reduce symptoms. A common health theory is that it can reduce inflammation, which is a fact that may influence treatment in the future.

“For the prevention of cancer, exercise studies provide evidence that this lifestyle behavior reduces the risk of developing cancer, and the mechanisms for either case are still under investigation," Musanti said. "Exercise helps stabilize weight, so it reduces obesity and we know that obesity is a risk factor for cancer.”   

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