Nov. 1, 2022 — Exercise during chemotherapy may help cancer patients overcome the debilitating effects of treatment and return to normal life faster.
This is after a new one to learn of 266 patients undergoing chemotherapy for testicular, breast or colon cancer or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. All participants participated in a 6-month exercise program, but half began the program during their chemo treatment (3 months before their chemo was scheduled to end), while the other half began after chemo was complete.
Previous research has shown that exercise benefits cancer patients, but this is the first to look at how the timing of exercise can affect the effect of treatment.
Those who exercised during chemotherapy saw less of a drop in maximal oxygen uptake, or peak VO2 — an indicator of overall fitness — after their chemotherapy ended. At this point, their peak VO2 had dropped about half as much as the other group.
They also saw smaller decreases in strength, quality of life, and physical function. And they reported less fatigue.
“Although patients are tired from treatment, exercise can induce changes in muscle strength and improve physical condition,” says study author Annemiek Walenkamp, MD, PhD, an oncologist at University Hospital Groningen in the Netherlands.
Exercise leads to cellular changes in the body and stimulates the production of mitochondria in muscle cells, Walenkamp explains.
“Have more [mitochondria] increases your body’s energy supply. Exercise also increases oxygen circulation. So you can use energy more efficiently.”
If exercise isn’t safe to do during chemotherapy, a program afterward can still help. In fact, all study participants were able to return their fitness to baseline one year after completing the exercise program, regardless of when they started it.
Preserving lung and heart function is important for cancer patients because it can improve chances of survival. A separate to learn found that for every additional peak metabolic equivalent (the amount of energy you expend while sitting still) cancer patients they reached during an exercise stress test reduced their risk of dying from cancer by 25%.
What kind of movement should patients do? In the Dutch study, the participants did 30 minutes of cardio (exercise bike, treadmill) 3 days a week, 20 to 30 minutes of strength training twice a week and a recreational sport such as indoor hockey, soccer or badminton once a week. They worked with a physical therapist for the first 3 months and were asked to maintain the routine on their own for the last 3 months.
More research is needed to determine the safest exercise for different types of cancer, Walenkamp says. For example, people with lung or bone cancer need to take extra care and work with a physical therapist who specializes in helping cancer patients.
“If safety is guaranteed, I suspect that all patients will benefit from such a program,” says Walenkamp.