Study finds strength-focused, community based exercise programs are safe and effective for cancer survivors

Former patients who get moving benefit their minds and bodies

SEATTLE — Jan. 9, 2012— A study of community-based exercise for cancer survivors that focused on strength training found such exercise is both safe and effective in terms of physical and psychosocial benefit. The findings are published online in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship.

Corresponding author Karen Syrjala, Ph.D., co-director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Survivorship Program, led the study of 221 cancer survivors who took part in a 12-week “Exercise and Thrive” program offered in conjunction with Seattle-area YMCAs. Overall, the study found the classes helpful for improving fatigue, insomnia, physical function, musculoskeletal symptoms, mental health, social support and physical activity. Additionally, participants had notable improvement in blood pressure, upper and lower body strength, walking endurance and flexibility.

The program focused on strength building because that is the area of greatest need and potential benefit for many cancer survivors. “Cancer can cause loss of muscle mass and result in fatigue. Strength training is needed to rebuild this muscle and to generate energy,” Syrjala said.

The study found a high rate of effectiveness for those who continued with the exercise classes, and relatively few people dropped out. “When people are tired they tend to want to rest until they feel better; and then resting becomes a habit. The support element is essential to their sticking with an exercise program,” she said. 

Learning to stick with an exercise program is important for cancer survivors, Syrjala said, because studies have shown they have a higher rate of being sedentary compared to the general population. “Many people who were active before cancer become inactive afterward, and those where were inactive before are very unlikely to become active after cancer,” she said.

However, studies have shown that only half of oncologists inquire about their patients’ physical activity on some or most visits with “insufficient time” rated as the highest barrier to promotion of physical activity.  “The benefits of exercise for cancer patients have been demonstrated as early as at the time of diagnosis,” Syrjala said. “This suggests that earlier intervention by health care providers to prescribe safe exercise programs may be warranted.”

Study participants did not lose a significant amount of weight, a finding consistent with those of other exercise programs that focus on strength training.

The “Exercise and Thrive” program involved group sessions with personal trainers, who were given a two-day workshop on cancer-specific exercise needs. The instructors received training that specifically addressed the emotional needs of survivors, as well as potential hazards of strength-building exercise. For example, in some former patients, if weight lifting is unrestrained, such activity can trigger lymphedema, an accumulation of fluid in tissue that causes limb swelling.  

“The most important lesson learned from our study is not the evidence that exercise matters; what’s important is that we saw benefits for a community-based program that was able to use personal trainers who had limited cancer training. This made it possible for many more survivors to recover and thrive in a program that was safe and effective and in their communities,” Syrjala said. 

Syrjala said that partnering with regional YMCA facilities proved helpful because cancer survivors were able to access the programs easily, at low cost – and without having to live near a cancer rehabilitation facility. Similar programs for cancer survivors are available in a growing number of states.

The LIVESTRONG Foundation and the Amgen Foundation of Washington State supported the research. Co-authors included Scott Baker, M.D., co-director of the Hutchinson Center Survivorship Program; Emily Jo Rajotte, Survivorship Program administrator; Jean C. Yi, a staff scientist in the Hutchinson Center’s Clinical Research Division; Lindsey Gregerson of the YMCA of Greater Seattle; and Andrea Leiserowitz of Oncology Physical Therapy, Eugene, Ore. 

Note for media only: To arrange an interview with Syrjala or obtain an embargoed copy of the paper, “Community-based Exercise Program Effectiveness and Safety for Cancer Survivors,” please contact Christi Ball Loso at or 206-667-5215.

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Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, our interdisciplinary teams of world-renowned scientists and humanitarians work together to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Our researchers, including three Nobel laureates, bring a relentless pursuit and passion for health, knowledge and hope to their work and to the world. For more information, please visit