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Exercise during chemo may help beat the treatment’s debilitating effects
A new study involving patients with different cancer types who were undergoing chemotherapy found that exercising during treatment helped patients overcome the treatment’s debilitating effects and speed up the return of function following chemotherapy. While previous research has shown that exercise can benefit cancer patients, this study focused on how exercise during treatment was able to impact the treatment’s negative effects on the body.
In the Dutch study, 266 patients who were undergoing chemotherapy for testicular, breast or colon cancer or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma took part in a 6-month exercise program. Half of participants started the program during their chemotherapy treatment, while the other half started after chemotherapy had ended.
The researchers found that patients who exercised during chemotherapy experienced a smaller drop in their peak oxygen uptake (also know as VO2 peak), which is an indicator of overall fitness, after their chemotherapy had ended. Patients who exercised during chemotherapy experienced a VO2 peak decline that was about half as much as the other group. Furthermore, patients who exercised during chemotherapy saw smaller declines in strength, quality of life, physical function, and fatigue.
How does exercise combat side effects from chemotherapy?
While patients feel tired from chemotherapy, physical activity helps to promote changes in muscle strength and improve the body’s overall physical condition. Exercise causes cellular changes in the body, stimulating the production of a component of the cell known as mitochondria. Mitochondria are responsible for generating energy for the cell to function. According to the researchers, having more mitochondria in muscle cells increases the body’s energy supply as well as improving oxygen circulation. These factors allow the body to use energy more efficiently.
What if someone cannot safely participate in exercise during treatment?
For some patients, it might not be possible to participate in an exercise program during chemotherapy. The researchers found, however, that participating in an exercise program after treatment has ended can still be beneficial. In the study, all participants were able to restore their fitness levels back to baseline (pre-treatment levels) one year after doing the exercise program, regardless of when they started it.
What kind of exercise is recommended?
In the study, participants did 20-30 minutes of weight training 2 times a week, and 30 minutes of cardio such as biking or running on the treadmill 3 days a week. They also did a recreational sport such as soccer or badminton once a week. For the first 3 months, participants worked with a physical therapist and then continued their routine on their own for the last 3 months.
Individuals who have cancers that affect the lung or bone should work with a physical therapist to determine the most appropriate exercises.
Take home message
A recent study showed that cancer patients who participating in regular physical activity during chemotherapy helped them counteract some of the treatment’s debilitating effects such as fatigue and a decline in physical functioning and improve their quality of life.