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Exercise as Medicine

Exercise as Medicine: How regular activity can reduce cancer risk and improve health during cancer treatments

New research finds that regular physical activity may reduce cancer growth.

In 2010, an American College of Sports Medicine roundtable of international clinical and exercise research experts concluded that cancer survivors could safely exercise enough to improve fitness and mitigate cancer related fatigue which changed oncologic care for many cancer survivors.

At the 2nd such roundtable which convened in 2018 in San Francisco, the experts considered whether a more robust “Exercise is Medicine” approach should be advocated. The number of randomized control exercise trials in the oncology field had increased by 281% warranting a relook at new data. Organizations who participated in the roundtable included the American College of Sports Medicine, who have a new ‘Moving through Cancer” initiative, American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and many others.

Among the findings, the new consensus is that not only is exercise safe, but there was strong evidence that aerobic and resistance training could improve cancer-related health outcomes including fatigue, physical functioning, anxiety, and depression, and also help with improved survival after breast, colon, and prostate diagnosis.

Equally interesting is that further research has demonstrated that exercise may be able to change the trajectory of cancer by altering the molecular environment and stalling tumor growth or increasing chemotherapy efficacy. Similar exciting and emerging research in humans is sure to follow.

“Exercise is Medicine’ is one of the 6 core pillars of Lifestyle Medicine, along with a “Food as Medicine” approach, stress management, avoidance of substance misuse, and fostering healthy sleep and social connections. These lifestyle pillars work synergistically with one another. For instance, healthy exercise improves sleep and healthy sleep fosters an uplifted mood and more mindful food selection and appetite control. Further, the 2018 research showed that positive cancer outcomes for reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms were greater in supervised exercise training compared to unsupervised or home-based programs, which may relate to the added power of exercising with others or a personal trainer.

If you are a cancer survivor, how can you get started?

  • Starting guidelines may be lighter than those recommended to the general population. Exercising 2-3 times per week is recommended with 20-30 minutes of walking or light aerobic activity along with light resistance training. If you have been inactive, start with two days per week. Start small, build gradually, and always listen to your body. Discuss your exercise plans with your doctor.
  • Pay careful attention to your energy levels when beginning an exercise program. Be mindful that your energy may be inconsistent and fluctuate from day to day. Listening to your body and adjusting intensity as needed is important.
  • If you have other medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or other complications, you should see your doctor prior to starting exercise. When in doubt, check with your doctor or healthcare provider.
  • Consider an exercise consultation with a Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist particularly if you want to advance your activities or if you have osteoporosis, heart, or vascular disease. Having the right knowledge and a solid plan can go a long way to not only prevent injury but also understand the optimal dosage of exercise to get the best exercise effects.
  • With time, work up to the general exercise guidelines of 30 minutes of aerobic-type activity 5 days a week along with 2 days of resistance training. Once you have worked up to these levels, some evidence shows benefit for longer duration. If you are considering this, it’s a perfect time to check back with a clinical exercise specialist and/or your provider.

Lifestyle Medicine is a rapidly growing board-certified medical specialty focused on evidence-based lifestyle therapies in nutrition and exercise, along with stress and sleep management, fostering social connections, and avoidance of substance misuse to not only prevent but treat or reverse medical conditions. For more information about El Camino Health’s Lifestyle Medicine program, our team of providers, or to make an appointment, call 650-962-4392 or visit


This article first appeared in the January 2020 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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