Research experts have identified several categories of benefits available to patients who engage in physical fitness programs, but questions have remained because every type of cancer exhibits a different set of symptoms and varies in treatment programs. Researchers have trouble with some types of cancer and treatment plans due to the lack of sufficient patients to perform gold-standard studies. However, trials have shown significant promise of benefits even in these hard to study areas.

All cancer patients were once thought to be unable to reap any benefit from exercise, and treatment was entirely in the hands of a doctor. This has changed significantly, but there is still some concern about patients receiving palliative care, which is also known as symptom management. Research has shown this concern may have some basis even as benefits of exercise have been established. In a study for the Journal of Palliative and Supportive Care, researchers sought to establish whether patients were willing and able to engage in-group exercise.

They identified 101 patients with a life expectancy of less than one year and asked for their inclusion into the program. Of these, 63 patients agreed to participate in the 6-week program meeting twice each week. Before the program started, 16 of them dropped out for various reasons. Of the 47 remaining, another 13 dropped out before completing the program for reasons including medical problems, social reasons, and death. One of the leading reasons for dropping out was an increased experience of pain or other symptoms. Of the original 63, 34 patients completed the fitness program.

Creating an Individualized Experience

Exercise programs can be beneficial for some patients while others will require a program tailored to their interests. The official recommendation for cancer patients by the American College of Sports Medicine is for all patients to avoid physical inactivity, and this provides an open field of opportunity. It is likely that the patients dropping out for reasons of pain would have continued with a program structured both around their individual experience of symptoms and personal interests especially considering the benefits of fitness.

Walking programs in a gym setting and other structured activities can have negative or neutral associations for some people, and this may limit their motivational capacity. Gardening, playing with a pet, or even walking in a special setting with positive associations for the person may be required to achieve the requisite motivation for participation. This is a primary reason for advocating the inclusion of fitness experts into every cancer treatment program. Many patients will not need their services, but those receiving mesothelioma treatment or facing advanced stage lung cancer, for instance, will benefit from access to expert fitness care.

The benefits make any extra effort worthwhile. Exercise can increase treatment efficacy and reduce the risk of recurrence for those with treatable cancers. It has been proven time and again to reduce severity of symptoms and increase quality of life for all patients. Research in this area is still ongoing. Increased understanding of benefits is essential to promoting inclusion of fitness into every treatment program.