Exercise as Personalized Cancer Treatment?

It’s hard to deny the benefits of exercise. Society has been inundated with messages to engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week to reap a variety of benefits, ranging from weight management to reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes to improved mental health. The American Cancer Society also recommends physical activity to reduce risk of cancer. What’s less clear is whether exercise can be used as a treatment to improve outcomes in those with cancer diagnoses. An article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology explores this question while laying out a framework for how to study exercise as a personalized therapy for cancer.

Although some evidence suggests that engaging in exercise after a cancer diagnosis may indeed improve cancer outcomes, research on the topic is far from definitive. The effect of exercise could differ by cancer site, stage, or genetic profile, requiring a different physical activity regimen based on how cancer presents in each patient. As the article describes, there are a series of steps necessary to sufficiently understand whether physical activity can be used as a proper treatment for cancer. Of particular importance is using animal models to test the effectiveness of exercise on different cancer types and designing clinical trials that evaluate how tumors respond to exercise therapy. One such trial, the Colon Health and  Life-Long Exercise Change trial, is already examining the effects of structured physical activity on recurrence and mortality in colorectal cancer patients.

Personalized physical activity as cancer therapy is not, of course, without its challenges. Cancers tend to be diagnosed in older adults and in those with comorbid conditions, patients for whom exercise may be less feasible or safe. There may also be difficulties in conducting physical activity clinical trials, which often require the use of specialized equipment to properly test exercise interventions. Despite these challenges, personalized exercise has the potential to provide a non-toxic addition to currently available cancer treatments that is responsive to each patient’s specific tumor.  

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