Exercise, Mental Health — During and After Cancer Treatment. July 14, 2015 11:56

Not only does exercise make people feel better, fitness is correlated with mortality, says Dr. Arash Asher, director of Cancer Survivorship and Rehabilitation at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "There have been oodles of studies that show exercise is good for breast cancer patients. It reduces fatigue, it's good for the bones and it decreases anxiety. But there also seems to be a much lower recurrence rate for people who get moderate amounts of exercise per week."

Research shows that exercise also reduces recurrence rates of other types of cancer, including colorectal, prostate and ovarian cancers. The protective benefit may be manifold: physical activity reduces inflammatory chemicals, body fat and insulin sensitivity, all of which may fuel cancer progression and recurrence.

The caveat, says Asher, is that while moderate exercise is beneficial, intense exercise may actually suppress immunity in the short term. "The answer is that it needs to be tailored for each person."

Cancer rehab may also include "prehabilitation": targeted exercises designed to optimize a treatment's outcome that patients can do before the treatment begins. For example, preoperative lung cancer patients may do breathing exercises, such as blowing up balloons, prostrate cancer patients may do pelvic floor exercises and neck cancer patients may do swallowing exercises.

In addition to regular exercise, mind-body exercises such as tai chi or yoga can help relieve stress and lift mood, says Asher. Another vital factor for mental health is rest, says Asher. "Really invest in your sleep; it can help your fatigue and mood. Plus, sleep is important for maximizing your immune system's function."