Impact of Exercise on Cancer Mortality, Recurrence, & Treatment-Related Side Effects

One of the largest studies undertaken looking at the impact of exercise on cancer survival was broad in scope, and found a lot of positive results.  Looking not only at mortality, the study included the impact of exercise on recurrence and on general health,well-being, and quality of life.

Key Findings

  • Exercise has been found to reduce cancer-specific mortality by 28-44%
  • Exercise has been found to reduce cancer recurrence 21-35%
  • Exercise has been found to improve adverse affects of treatment, like fatigue, anxiety, and distress
  • The primary participants in the study were breast cancer survivors, while most of the other participants were prostate and colorectal cancer survivors

Published Epidemiologic Reviews, researchers followed a total of 100 studies, involving thousands of individual patients whose exercise behavior was assessed following the diagnosis of any type of cancer.  

There are 2 major categories of health concerns for cancer patients and survivors: 1) concern regarding cancer recurrence and mortality, and 2) the persistent adverse effects of cancer treatment.

Part 1: Exercise impact on Cancer Recurrence and Mortality

Broken into the 2 parts, the first relating to cancer recurrence and mortality followed 68,000 participants, with two-thirds of the participants diagnosed with breast cancer; almost all the others were diagnosed with prostate and colorectal cancers. What they found was encouraging:

  • Patients who were more physically active had a lower risk of cancer-specific mortality from a variety of cancer types, with exercise following a cancer diagnosis associated with a 28%– 44% reduced risk of cancer-specific mortality.
  • Higher levels of exercise following a diagnosis link to lower risk of cancer recurrence (21% – 35%), and a similar decreased risk of all-cause mortality.


Part 2: Exercise impact on the Adverse Effects of Cancer Treatment

This part of the study looked at cancer treatment-related side-effects including bone health, cognitive function, sexuality, urinary incontinence and nausea.   This included meta-analysis related to anxiety, depression, psychosocial distress, emotional well-being, mental health, stress, fatigue; lymphedema; physical function; physical health and quality of life.  Their findings here are also encouraging:

  • Exercise helps with fatigue. This supports the National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines for managing fatigue, which recommends exercise as the primary approach for managing cancer-related fatigue.
  • Exercise helps survivors with distress, anxiety, depression, stress, emotional well-being, and mental health issues that are common experiences for cancer patients and survivors.
  • Exercise has a positive effect on sleep, and physical health, although the results were not as strong as the other areas in the study.