Yoga is used by millions of people to relieve stress and improve fitness, but the practice may yield so much more. A new study suggests yoga may help maintain quality of life and alleviate some side effects for men undergoing radiation therapy for prostate cancer.

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The new study suggests men undergoing radiotherapy for prostate cancer may benefit from yoga.

Study leader Dr. Neha Vapiwala, of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, and colleagues recently presented their findings at the Society of Integrative Oncology's 12th International Conference in Boston, MA.

Yoga is a mind and body practice that involves a combination of physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation or relaxation.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), around 9.1% of American adults - 21 million - used yoga in 2012, increasing from 6.1% in 2007.

A number of studies have hailed yoga for its potential health benefits. Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study that found the practice may improve quality of life for patients with breast cancer, while a more recent study suggested yoga may improve symptoms of arthritis.

Now, Dr. Vapiwala and her team find yoga may offer significant benefits for men with prostate cancer.

After skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer among American men; around 1 in 7 men in the US will be diagnosed with the disease in their lifetime.

While radiation therapy can be an effective treatment option for men with prostate cancer, it can pose some side effects that may impair a patient's quality of life. For example, it is estimated that around 60-90% of men undergoing such treatment experience fatigue, 21-85% experience erectile dysfunction and 24% experience urinary incontinence.

Yoga maintained quality of life, relieved side effects

Dr. Vapiwala and colleagues set out to assess how yoga may affect quality of life and treatment side effects for men undergoing radiation therapy for prostate cancer.

Fast facts about yoga
  • Yoga is the sixth most commonly used complementary health practice among adults in the US
  • In 2012, 1.7 million children in the US practiced yoga
  • People with a medical condition should talk to their health care provider before taking up yoga.

Learn more about yoga

They note that to date, studies have primarily focused on how the practice benefits female cancer patients - mainly due to the assumption that men do not want to take part in yoga, given that around 72% of yoga participants in the US are women.

The team enrolled 68 prostate cancer patients to their study who were undergoing 6-9 weeks of outpatient radiation therapy. Of these, 45 agreed to take part in 75 minutes of Eischens yoga twice weekly during their treatment.

"Eischens yoga incorporates ideas from movement theory and kinesiology and is accessible to all body types and experience levels," explains study investigator Tali Mazar Ben-Josef, a certified Eischens yoga instructor and researcher at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center.

The researchers note that 18 of the participants withdrew from the yoga sessions early due to unavoidable clashes between yoga classes and radiation therapy.

From a series of questionnaires the remaining men completed, the researchers found that throughout the course of radiation therapy and yoga sessions, their quality of life was maintained. Fatigue severity also improved, while prevalence of erectile dysfunction and urinary incontinence remained steady.

Commenting on these findings, Dr. Vapiwala says:

"Data have consistently shown declines in these important measures among prostate cancer patients undergoing cancer therapy without any structured fitness interventions, so the stable scores seen with our yoga program are really good news."

What explains these findings?

The researchers note that physiologic data has shown yoga can reduce treatment-related fatigue for cancer patients, and previous studies have suggested yoga may strengthen pelvic floor muscles and increase blood flow, which may explain why the practice appeared to alleviate erectile dysfunction and urinary incontinence in this latest research.

"There may also be a psychosocial benefit that derives from participation in a group fitness activity that incorporates meditation and promotes overall healthiness. And all of this ultimately improves general quality of life," adds Dr. Vapiwala.

The team says their findings indicate that yoga is a feasible approach to maintaining quality of life for men being treated for prostate cancer, noting that the participation rate in their study challenges the popular notion that men do not want to engage in the practice.

"Our participation-rate finding alone is important because it is a caution against making assumptions about patients without proper evidence," says Dr. Vapiwala.

Next, the team plans to conduct a randomized control trial of men with prostate cancer, which will involve comparing the effects of yoga against non-participation.

Last year, MNT reported on a study that found yoga can improve cardiovascular risk as much as walking or biking.