What type of exercise is most beneficial to breast cancer patients?

EDMONTON – While researchers have been studying the link between exercise and breast cancer survival rates for years, a new study out of the University of Alberta has been taking a closer look at the specific type and intensity of exercise that is most beneficial for patients.

Tracy Carroll, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2011, was one of 300 women who took part in the study, working out three times a week while going through chemotherapy and radiation.

“It was a good workout,” Carroll said. “They understood everything we were going through, but they really pushed us and moved us… no wimps in here.”

The recent study was a follow up to a previous U of A study, which focused on the long-term effects exercise had on women going through breast cancer treatment. That study, which was conducted between 2003 and 2005, followed up with participants eight years after their treatment.

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“The groups that exercised during chemotherapy actually had a lower risk of recurrence of the disease and a longer survival,” explained Dr. Kerry Courneya, with the U of A’s Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation.

Following the results of that study, researchers wanted to delve deeper to see whether or not the type or intensity of exercise made a difference to the patient’s health.

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The latest trial — conducted in Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa — divided participants into three groups:

  • Group one- 30 minutes of aerobic exercise
  • Group two- 60 minutes of aerobic exercise
  • Group three- 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, plus 30 minutes of weight training

All three groups worked out three times a week while going through chemotherapy.

“To our surprise, we actually found the group that did more aerobic exercise did better,” said Courneya, who presented the results of the study at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium last week.

The women who did the cardio/weight combination had increased strength and fewer hormonal symptoms like hot flashes, Courneya said.

But the results showed the women who did 60 minutes of cardiovascular activity also had better physical functioning — meaning they felt less pain and had more energy than the other groups.

“We found that adding more aerobic exercise seemed to improve the symptoms and the physical functioning better than adding weight training,” Courneya added.

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“So it’s very valuable information for the breast cancer patients. It’s very valuable for the oncologists who treat the patients, and can begin to recommend specific types of exercise and specific amounts of exercise that’ll help them manage their symptoms and get through the chemotherapy treatments.”

Overall, in terms of the magnitude of the benefit, Courneya says exercise — when combined with chemotherapy — may be as beneficial for survival as some of the newer chemotherapeutic drugs that are being developed.

“So, it’s really like exercise is a drug and we add it to the chemotherapy. And there seemed to be some sort of synergism there that exercise really helped the chemotherapy to be more effective in treating the cancer.”

“I felt better after I exercised,” Carroll said. “It felt like the stuff was moving through the system maybe faster. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but that’s what it felt like.”

And above the medical benefit, Carroll says the exercise routine really helped keep her focused on getting better.

“It gets you out of the house, it motivates you to keep going and the camaraderie of all the ladies was fantastic.”

Courneya and his team will continue with the study with funding from the Alberta Cancer Foundation’s Bust a Move event, which is a six-hour fitness extravaganza that raises money for the Cross Cancer Institute.

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With files from Su-Ling Goh, Global News.

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