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The Impact of Exercise on Cancer Patients and Survivors: To Sweat or Not to Sweat?

Both cancer and its treatment have been associated with significant, as well as persistent in some cases, physiological and psychological effects. Patients with cancer or who have survived cancer often experience fatigue, decreased fitness, symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, and overall decreased quality of life. Despite the holistic and somewhat liberal way we use and view the phrase “quality of life,” researchers generally parse it into separate domains when attempting to understand how individual aspects of someone’s life amounts to an overall quality of life. The main domains include the physical domain, the psychological domain, the social domain, and the spiritual domain. Similar to how cancer can affect multiple organ systems, cancer can affect multiple domains of someone’s quality of life. One intervention proving to be useful in reducing the negative effects of cancer and its treatment in most, if not all, domains is exercise. Listed below are ways in which exercise is associated with improvement in three of the major domains:

Physical Domain – In addition to any effects the disease process of cancer can cause, surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and hormone therapy all have acute and chronic effects on the cardiovascular (heart) and pulmonary (lung) systems. This can lead to impaired cardiovascular fitness, decreased strength, and fatigue. A review of multiple studies found strong evidence exercise was associated with significant improvements in all three. Interestingly, one study found patients who were still undergoing treatment while exercising were able to maintain their cardiovascular fitness and level of fatigue suggesting there may be protective effects of exercise on the heart.

Psychological Domain – Anxiety, depression, or symptoms of anxiety and depression are not uncommon in patients who have cancer or survived cancer. Cancer also affects patients’ self-esteem and perceptions of control. Both randomized and non-randomized controlled trials found aerobic exercises such as running, biking, or swimming were linked to reduced symptoms of depression and decreased anxiety in cancer survivors. Exercise was also linked to improved self-esteem in cancer patients and survivors. Although there are no definitive studies yet, there is data that suggests exercise may help survivors regain feelings of control.

Social Domain – Several studies found cancer survivors who exercised had an improved ability to function in their roles at work and within their families. Some felt increased life satisfaction and feelings of happiness when adhering to an exercise regimen. Additionally, groups formed by cancer patients and survivors adhering to exercise regimens served as another form of social support promoting both their social well-being and their motivation to continue exercising.