Large study confirms benefits of exercise for some cancer patients

In collaboration with the Press Association

Physical activity, when appropriate, can improve patients's health and quality of life after they finish treatment, according to large analysis of over 30 studies of exercise and cancer, published in the BMJ.

Although some previous research has shown that cancer patients who try to resume daily activities after treatment sometimes find that they feel increased tiredness, do less exercise and have a reduced quality of life, other studies have shown that quality of life and other health factors can be improved for some through physical activity.

The latest report by experts at the University of Hong Kong looked at data from 34 trials that investigated the effects of physical activity (aerobic, resistance and strength training) among adults who had been treated for either breast, prostate, gynaecological, bowel, gastric or lung cancer.

The types of physical activity studied included aerobic exercise, such as walking and jogging; resistance training, such as use of elastic resistance bands; and strength training, such as using weights.

The team found that women who had undergone treatment for breast cancer and had taken done some form of exercise over several weeks showed health improvements in a range of areas.

These included body mass index (BMI) and body weight; physical functions such as lower limb strength; psychological outcomes such as fatigue and depression; and quality of life.

For the other types of cancer studied, physical activity resulted in improvements in BMI and body weight; physical functions such as oxygen consumption and hand-grip strength; depression; and quality of life.

The study also found that differences in the type and intensity of exercise also had an impact on the physical health of patients.

Breast cancer patients found that aerobic exercise plus resistance was significantly more effective on physical fitness, emotional fitness, overall well being and concerns about breast cancer, compared with aerobic activity on its own.

The effect of physical activity was also greater in younger patients, although this part of the study was not entirely conclusive as younger patients were able to carry out physical activity for longer periods of time.

The paper's authors said that further trials are needed, especially for patients with cancer types other than breast cancer. It is also necessary to measure the intensity of activity, they said.

They concluded that "quality of life was a clear significant benefit of physical activity" and their findings showed that "clinically, there were important positive effects on physical functions and quality of life".

Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, welcomed the findings, but cautioned that each cancer patient is different, and that the findings would not apply to all: "This study provides us with further evidence that exercise may help to improve the quality of life of some cancer patients. But it's important to remember that cancer can be diagnosed at any stage and there are many different types of cancer.

"Each patient's individual condition, state of health and needs should be taken into account before prescribing exercise and many patients will need to seek advice from their doctor, physiotherapist or specialist nurse before embarking on an exercise programme."

Copyright Press Association 2012


  • Fong, D. et al. (2012). Physical activity for cancer survivors: meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials BMJ, 344 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.e70