Carrying a computer, picking up a child or walking up the stairs are a few of the many daily functions that can challenge cancer patients and survivors with limited muscle strength. A new analysis of the research now suggests that lifting weights, sit-ups and other forms of resistance exercise can help survivors both during and after treatment gain muscle strength, reduce body fat and improve fatigue.
The improved effects seen with arm strength and body fat were most pronounced in survivors who engaged in low to moderate intensity exercises compared to those of higher intensity.
Doing resistance exercises at least two times per week led to survivors being able to increase the amount of weight lifted, on average 34 pounds (15.5 kilograms) for legs and 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms) for arms.
The study was published in the early online issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
For the analysis, researchers found 14 relevant randomized controlled trials, often considered the gold standard of research. Each study compared one group of survivors receiving resistance training with another group not doing any resistance exercises. Studies included those who had been diagnosed with cancers of the breast, prostate, and head and neck, both during and after treatment.
Resistance training interventions ranged from twelve weeks to a year, and included a range of muscle-strengthening exercises, from bicep curls and bench presses to elastic bands and sit-ups.
In looking at muscle strength, body fat and fatigue, the most pronounced effects of resistance exercises were seen in both arm and leg muscle strength. Fewer studies looked at fatigue, four of them, but the analysis found that resistance training did improve fatigue compared to those who were not strength training. The exercises also appeared to lead to improvements in lean body mass.
Some of the strongest benefits appeared with low to moderate-intensity resistance training, two days per week, as opposed to higher intensities and more frequently.
This article appears in the May 15, 2013 issue of AICR's Cancer Research Update.