World-first research presented at the Multinational Association for Supportive Care in Cancer (MASCC) Conference in Adelaide showed exercise can help cancer patients and survivors overcome depression and anxiety, with benefits occurring within as little as six weeks.
Dr Greg Levin, Adjunct Lecturer at Edith Cowan University, presented his research at the Conference on Saturday, showing that exercise can be a valuable tool to help support those with cancer.
While many previous studies have demonstrated the benefits of exercise for cancer patients in terms of tolerance of treatment and quality of life, this is believed to be the first study that has examined the psychological benefits of exercise in cancer patients and survivors who were diagnosed with, or experiencing high levels of depression.
Dr Levin’s research involved 32 individuals with a range of cancers, including brain, breast and prostate cancer experiencing depressive symptoms, including two people undergoing palliative care. Study participants were split into three groups to test the impact of home-based or gym exercise programs, compared to no exercise at all.
“The level of depression in those people who had cancer and who didn’t exercise generally stayed the same, or progressively got worse. However, participants who completed any type of exercise experienced a positive effect, particularly in terms of reducing their symptoms of depression. As an example, several patients progressed from being classified as majorly depressed, to being asymptomatic.”
Dr Levin said that the results over the 12 week period were surprising for everyone involved and clearly showed that exercise helped overcome depression, as well as relieving anxiety, providing better quality of life and improving overall satisfaction with life.
“Previous studies have shown that up to half of cancer patients experience depressive symptoms. Depression can be linked to mortality, reduced treatment adherence, and increased risk of cancer reoccurrence – so these initial results could have a big impact.”
Dr Levin said his the research showed that 150 minutes a week of home-based exercise was at times even more beneficial than attending the gym.
“Interestingly, those who were completing 150 minutes a week of self-managed exercise experienced more of a benefit in the first six weeks. We suspect this is because it gave them an initial sense of control and achievement. However, over time the supervised group gained greater benefits, and were more compliant with their exercise program.
“One of the most promising findings was that exercise didn’t need to be too vigorous to be beneficial and benefits could be gained fairly quickly. From weight training or chopping wood through to walking the dog, all types of exercise showed a benefit in terms of mental health.”
Dr Levin said that further research was required, but this initial study could inform how exercise is recommended to people with cancer in the future.
“Based on these initial results – we not only know that exercise is beneficial for cancer patients with depression, but also that both home-based exercise and gym training have a role to play in supporting cancer patients and improving how they feel about themselves.”
Professor Ian Olver, Incoming President, MASCC and meeting co-convenor said that using exercise to help cancer patients overcome depression was both novel and important.
“Telling depressed cancer patients to go for a walk or head to the gym might sound controversial – but with more patients surviving cancer or undergoing prolonged treatment, finding new ways to help them overcome the psychological impacts of cancer and maintain quality of life is crucial.”