Exercise improves physical and mental side effects of breast cancer treatments, new study finds

Exercise helps breast cancer patients with the physical and mental side effects of treatment, a new Loughborough University study has found, and ultimately it may improve disease prognosis.

Led by experts in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, the research, published in Nature Scientific Reports, looks at the effects of resistance and endurance exercises on patients undergoing post-surgery treatment known as ‘adjuvant therapy’.

Adjuvant therapies – such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy, and forms of targeted therapy – have shown much success in increasing the survival of breast cancer patients.

However, these therapies can have negative side effects that profoundly impact patients’ physical and emotional health, decreasing quality of life.

Well-documented side effects include depression, fatigue, and declines in physical fitness (reduced muscular strength and endurance). Such issues can decrease adherence to treatment and, as a result, decrease the efficiency of treatment.

The Loughborough study, led by student Jonathon Mok, looked at the effect of resistance exercises (such as lifting weights) and endurance exercises (such as walking and jogging) on breast cancer patients’ physical and mental health.

The researchers pulled together data on 1,830 patients from 18 different peer-reviewed studies and, using statistical analysis techniques, identified overall trends.

They found that combined resistance and endurance exercise interventions are beneficial to cardiorespiratory fitness, depression, muscular endurance, muscular strength, quality of life, and social functioning.

The findings also revealed that the combination of exercises can significantly improve fatigue in breast cancer patients – which is important given this side effect is said to affect between 62% and 85% of patients undergoing treatment.

Other findings include:

  • Individually, resistance and endurance interventions improved side effects – though endurance exercise was found to slightly decrease muscular strength
  • Resistance interventions elicited higher benefits overall.

The study concludes that, by reducing the negative side effects, these interventions can enhance treatment adherence rates, therefore increasing treatment efficiency and ultimately improving disease prognosis.

Lead author Jonathon hopes the research will “progress literature towards improving the process of adjuvant treatment for breast cancer patients to minimise its detrimental side effects. This will help those undergoing aggressive cancer treatments to return to a functional lifestyle post-treatment.”

As well as the insightful findings, the study is interesting as it is based on Jonathon’s dissertation, and it is unusual for undergraduates to get their work published.

“It feels like a huge achievement to have this published and I am very proud!”, said Jonathon, who is now in his fourth year of the Biological Sciences course and is researching the effects of exercise intervention on breast cancer cells.

“I never expected to get published and I am very thankful for my supervisory team for all their help and support throughout this process.”

Dr Mhairi Morris, who supervised and co-authored Jonathon’s study with Dr Elizabeth Akam and Mj Brown, said of the achievement: “I am so impressed. This is exceptional for an undergraduate student. Jonathon’s already working at PhD level – I have high hopes for his future career as a research scientist.”

To read the paper, titled ‘The lasting effects of resistance and endurance exercise interventions on breast cancer patient mental wellbeing and physical fitness’, click here.