Exercise and cancer survival: Is There A Connection?

If you have or have had cancer, you’re likely aware that doctors frequently advise patients to get more rest, and reduce, or even stop, their exercise regimen. And while fatigue is a common concern for cancer patients – especially those undergoing treatment – and this advice might sound appealing, it is, actually, a very bad idea! In fact, increasing your activity and committing to a fitness routine can actually counter fatigue.

For well over a decade, evidence has been mounting that exercise can reap major therapeutic dividends for people with cancer. Rather than depleting your body, an individualized, carefully monitored aerobic exercise and strength-training regimen can result in better energy levels and improved treatment tolerance, as well as a better overall quality of life. And the best news of all is that exercise may actually improve your chances of surviving cancer!

For example, a study of breast cancer patients, reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, showed that walking 3 to 5 hrs/week cut breast cancer mortality in half! The link between exercise and improved survival of breast cancer patients could well be related to favorable changes in estrogen and insulin levels, as well as better weight control (which in turn lowers the risk of breast tumor recurrence and disease progression). Moreover, several studies have shown that both diet and exercise may help curb insulin levels, oxidative DNA damage, and the rates of tumor proliferation – all factors linked with cancer progression and reduced survival.

As you may be aware, muscle atrophy and blood circulation worsen with lack of movement. The longer such limitation persists, the greater the decline in muscle. This is true for all of us. But for cancer patients, the disease itself can have a detrimental impact on muscle; in some cases, an advanced cancer can waste muscle by over 80 percent of the body’s previously existing muscle mass! By shifting the body’s metabolism in the catabolic or “breakdown” direction, cancer actually amplifies the muscle-degrading effects of inactivity. This in turn can lead to immune dysfunction, as the muscles are a major reservoir for the amino acid glutamine, which serves as a key fuel for the immune system.

It’s important to note that that a critical balance exists between rest and activity. Drs. Marie-Christine Mormont and Francois Levi of Paris University in Villejuif, France, have carefully monitored the sleep-activity rhythms of people with cancer. They observed that patients with the most abnormal sleep-activity rhythms were five times more likely to die within two years of their diagnosis of metastatic colorectal cancer. A second study showed that, among metastatic colorectal cancer patients with more normal sleep-activity rhythms, treatment responses improved and the five-year survival rates were up to 50 percent higher than those of patients with abnormal rhythms!

Attending to this concern, at the Block Center we evaluate each patient’s sleep and activity cycles. All new patients do a Stress Chemistry and Circadian Health Evaluation, which assesses cortisol, melatonin and a number of additional hormonal biomarkers. Why is this important? Because research has consistently demonstrated that assessing stress chemistry and circadian health are some of the key biomarkers associated with a patient’s prognosis, response to treatment and long-term survival. Once assessed, we train and condition each of our patients in order to re-establish healthy rhythms and optimize their biological clock.

Besides sleep and activity cycles, we provide individualized exercise recommendations for all of our patients – even those that are bed-ridden! For building and maintaining muscle, we recommend resistance training through gentle workouts with low weights, stretch bands, Pilates or slow weight-bearing exercise, all intended to help build and maintain muscle tone, strength and breath. Balancing this resistance training with aerobic workouts is essential, but of course tailored to each patient’s personal needs and condition. Qigong and Tai Chi are slow, graceful, mindful exercises that nicely fill the need for flexibility while providing a centering and internal balance.

Whether food, sleep, or exercise, a body in balance with adequate rest and personalized fitness is a body best equipped to heal!



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