The Impact of Physical Activity in Cancer Survivorship

July 8, 2013


New research suggests that proper exercise can aid in the recovery process for cancer survivors. In addition, staying physically active has the potential to increase life expectancy and even minimize the impact of side effects from cancer treatment, such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, weight gain and muscle function.

Deborah Vollmer Dahlke, chair of the Cancer Alliance of Texas, doctoral student at the Texas A&M Health Science Center (TAMHSC) School of Rural Public Health and affiliate of the TAMHSC-School of Rural Public Health Cancer Prevention and Control Research Network, reports that being more active has been proven to not only reduce cancer risks but also improve the health and quality of life of cancer survivors.

Deborah Vollmer Dahlke

Deborah Vollmer Dahlke

Mild physical activity is associated with a longer life expectancy, regardless of body weight. According to a recent study funded by the National Cancer Institute, people who engaged in leisure-time physical activity had life expectancy gains of as much as 4.5 years.

Marcia Ory, Ph.D

Marcia Ory, Ph.D

“Physical activity is one of the best things you can do for yourself to stay healthy,” says Regents and Distinguished Professor Marcia Ory, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the TAMHSC-School of Rural Public Health and a leading researcher in cancer survivorship and aging. “Yet, today only about 31 percent of U.S. adults say they engage in any kind of regular physical activity.”

According to Dr. Ory, a person who gets up in the morning and spends 30 minutes on the treadmill or walking in the neighborhood feels pretty good – and he or she should. But what happens during the other 15 hours or so the person is awake? Most Americans spend their daylight hours sitting in a car, at a desk or at home, resulting in their being active only three percent of the day. By introducing regular intervals of moderate to intense physical activity throughout the day, that person can reduce cancer and other chronic disease risks.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults ages 18-64 engage in regular aerobic physical activity for 2.5 hours at moderate intensity – or 1.25 hours at vigorous intensity – each week. Moderate activities include brisk walking, gardening or housework. Vigorous activities include running, fast dancing or lifting heavy loads.

“Think of exercise as medicine,” Dr. Ory recommends. “Regular exercise can reduce the need for medications and costly health care treatments. There are many different types of exercise, chose one that you enjoy – this will help you stay active for life.”

According to Dr. Ory, there are many practical ways to get physically active breaks in your day:

  • “Buzz me active” – Set a timer on your phone or your computer to remind you every 40-60 minutes that it’s time to stand up, stretch and take a brief walk, outside if possible.
  • “Walk with me” – Need to have a quick chat with a family member or a co-worker? Instead of sending a text or an email, suggest going for a walk.
  • “Stand to talk” – Standing desks are great, but if you don’t have one, you can always stand up every time you answer the phone. If the cord is long enough or you have a speakerphone, you can walk around, do deep knee bends and stretch while talking on the phone.
  • “Stay Webinar Fit” – Hour long webinars are great times for stretch breaks. You can attend to business while stretching or using weights. Keep a flexibility stretch band or a pair of hand weights at your desk for use during webinars and long conference calls.
  • “Park to walk” – When you are shopping or at an off-site meeting, park your car at the furthest edge of the lot. Enjoy the opportunity for an outdoor physical activity break.


While physical activity is important for everyone, regardless of age or health status, research aimed at developing strategies and resources to promote physical activity in older cancer survivors is showing great promise. And, mobile technology is serving as a strong catalyst as the use of mobile devices and tools has continued to rise among people of all ages, including those over 60.

Yan Hong, Ph.D.

Yan Hong, Ph.D.

Yan Hong, Ph.D., associate professor at the TAMHSC-School of Rural Public Health, and her colleagues recently examined the development of iCanFit, a mobile-enabled web application to help older cancer survivors stay active and manage their physical health. The app emphasizes health-promoting lifestyle behaviors, including personalized tips to establish a survivorship plan, ideas for becoming more active, healthy eating techniques, and information on current guidelines for cancer prevention screenings.

Dr. Hong reports that research among cancer survivors shows that behind direct physician interactions, the Internet is the second most-used resource for finding health-related information. Although older individuals are beginning to use the Internet and newer technology, the majority of the web programs and applications created are still geared toward younger users. This app not only promotes physical activity, but also is geared toward the older cancer survivors’ needs as a user.

Cancer survivors at this age often struggle with proper self-management of their recovery. The iCanFit app allows the user to be an active participant in their recovery process while engaging in new technology that is both challenging and interesting.

While research in both cancer recovery and the benefits of physical activity continues, one thing is clear – whether in recovery from cancer or working to live in a more health-conscious manner, developing means of incorporating regular physical activity into daily life is essential to living longer and healthier.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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