For Cancer Care, Is Exercise the New Chemo?

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When it comes to cancer, the evidence is stacking up that regular exercise could play a key role in protecting the body against the disease, and perhaps even mitigate the symptoms of chemotherapy and medication.

And new research suggests exercise may also aid in recovery and rehabilitation after cancer treatment has ended.

The findings aren't new; regular exercise as a way of reducing risk of cancer has long been embraced by the medical community. The official 12-point guide from the European Union on how to lower your cancer risk puts physical activity at No. 4. But the data do shed light on the benefits of physical activity during cancer care, giving doctors and patients a new perspective on treatment options.

In the past, traditional cancer care has steered away from recommending physical activity to cancer patients, as the toll of chemotherapy and medication can prove to be too heavy. But scientists have dug deeper, exploring whether or not exercise plays a role in survival. Lee Jones, an exercise physiologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, says maybe.

Jones tells U.S. News that his own findings on exercise and cancer therapy were striking. He found that in women with breast cancer who didn't exercise, chemotherapy took a major toll on their bodies, thus aging them prematurely.

For example, Jones notes, "Ten weeks of chemotherapy is equivalent to 10 years of normal aging." On the other hand, cancer patients who exercised regularly showed no premature aging whatsoever.

The findings led to further research, as Jones began to wonder whether physical activity had any impact on tumor growth. He says some tumors thrive in low-oxygen environments, and pumping oxygen into tissues (by way of exercise) could prevent or stall their growth.

Though many of the current studies are observational, experts say they paint a credible picture, one that has prompted the scheduling of 14 studies at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center over the next five years.