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New research shows that lighter forms of physical activity, such as yoga, may help reduce cancer-related fatigue and inflammation. Oleg Breslavtsev/Getty Images
  • Cancer survivors often experience health issues including fatigue and long-term inflammation.
  • New research from the University of Rochester Medical Center suggests that yoga helps reduce fatigue and inflammation in older cancer survivors.
  • And research from the Instituto de Medicina Integral found that a sedentary lifestyle at the time of cancer diagnosis for older adults could raise their mortality risk.

After a person finishes treatment for cancer, they sometimes will still experience certain health issues. These can include fatigue, cognitive issues, cardiovascular disease, and mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression.

It is also common for cancer survivors to experience long-term inflammation from both the cancer and its treatment. This inflammation is correlated with an increased risk of cancer recurrence.

Now, research from the University of Rochester Medical Center recently presented at the 2023 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) shows that yoga can help reduce fatigue and inflammation and improve the overall quality of life for older cancer survivors.

And other research from the Instituto de Medicina Integral in Brazil reported older adults who had a sedentary lifestyle at the time of cancer diagnosis were at a higher risk for early death.

Yoga is a physical practice with a very long history with roots in Indian culture and Hinduism. It has been used for thousands of years as a physical, spiritual, and mental practice.

Although yoga was practiced in the United States as early as the 1920s, it was not until the 1970s that it gained mainstream popularity.

Yoga includes a variety of physical poses, breathing exercises, and meditation, all ranging from beginner to more complex for advanced practitioners. There are also a number of different types of yoga to choose from.

No matter the type of yoga you choose, research shows it can aid with:

Previous studies have found yoga to be effective for cancer symptom management, as well as the management of cancer treatment-related toxicities.

With a background in exercise physiology, Dr. Karen Mustian, a Dean’s professor in both the Department of Surgery and Cancer Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center and lead author of the yoga-related research, told Medical News Today she discovered yoga about 20 years ago.

“I was fascinated by the mindfulness components of yoga that are integrated with physical exercise and the movement that’s part of yoga, as well as focused breathing,” Dr. Mustian said.

“I realized that these were exactly some of the kinds of things that when we tried to integrate them with traditional exercises — like when people were walking or lifting weights — that seemed to create what I like to refer to as magic. And that the benefits were really magnified in many ways for a lot of people, especially for people with chronic health problems.”

From there, Dr. Mustian said she became interested in using mindfulness-based forms of exercise for managing toxicities and side effects for cancer survivors.

“We wanted to understand how yoga was working, when it improves everything from pain, to insomnia, to fatigue, to quality of life, (to) anxiety. If you take a look at the data that was just presented at ASCO, you can see in fact that we can do that for not only pretty much every cancer survivor out there, but we can do it in elderly people who are over the age of 65, and that doing yoga is safe for them and it actually works for side effects.”

– Dr. Karen Mustian, lead study author

In one of the studies conducted by Dr. Mustian and her team, 173 cancer survivors with a mean age of 67 either participated in an average of seven yoga sessions or a behavioral health education placebo.

Upon analysis, researchers found those in the yoga group reported significantly more improvement in both fatigue and the emotional component of their quality of life compared to the placebo group.

Yoga participants also reported improvements in the physical and functional components of their quality of life, but the placebo group did not.

In the other yoga-related study, Dr. Mustian and her team measured the effects of yoga on inflammation cancer survivors. This study enrolled 502 cancer survivors with a mean age of 56 — participants either received 75-minute gentle yoga sessions twice a week for four weeks or a health education placebo.

At the end of the study, scientists found the yoga participants had significantly lower levels of pro-inflammatory markers compared to the placebo group. Additionally, those who took yoga had a statistical trend toward lower levels of anti-inflammatory markers compared to placebo participants.

“As we learn about inflammation and what goes on with inflammation, we know that cancer causes it, we know the treatments cause it, and we know that it is underlying virtually almost every negative side effect we see from cancer in one way or another, as well as its treatments,” Dr. Mustian said.

“The newer data on inflammation was really spectacular because it gives us a place to actually demonstrate this is changing biology.”

The third exercise-related research presented at ASCO from the Instituto de Medicina Integral in Brazil focused on the effect of physical activity on mortality risk in older cancer patients.

In this study, researchers recruited over 2,600 participants over the age of 60 with different types of cancer. Participants were asked about their physical activity level via a survey before cancer treatment. The study participants were followed for 180 days.

After 180 days, scientists found that of the 461 people who died, almost 26% were from the sedentary group and 10% from the physically active group. Additionally, the survival rate of participants who had some level of physical activity prior to treatment was higher at 90% compared to sedentary participants at 74%.

According to Diana Garrett, a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist and senior physical therapist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy Center and Saint John’s Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, CA — who was not involved in this study — physical activity has shown to impact cancer incidence, progression, metastasis, and overall survival outcomes.

“Exercise increases production of immune cells such as tumor suppressors and inactivation of tumor promoters, which creates an unfavorable microenvironment for cancer progression. Physical activity also leads to improved structure and function of blood vessels which allow for greater delivery of anti-tumor agents, such as natural killer cells and T cell infiltration.”

– Diana Garrett, physical therapist

MNT spoke to Dr. Bhavana Pathak, a board certified hematologist and medical oncologist at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, about the new research.

With a background in yoga herself, Dr. Pathak says the mindfulness of yoga assists with a person’s mind-body connection, with healing occurring both physically as well as mentally.

“If you center your mind and inflammation can decrease, you’re reducing cortisol, and then create a milieu that’s very conducive to healing,” she continued.

“Ultimately, it’s the body healing itself. It’s really the simplest intervention that anybody can take and it’s accessible to anybody — you can do it just sitting in your chair.”

And for those looking to become more active Garrett said exercises, such as walking, can improve aerobic fitness, increase muscular strength, improve body composition, stimulate immune response, improve sleep, and improve cognitive function which leads to an overall improvement in a person’s quality of life and health.

“Acute responses of the heart during exercise include increased cardiac output (overall amount of blood pumped by the heart), increased stroke volume (quantity of blood pumped with each beat), and increased heart rate. With continued exercise training we (see) an increase in red blood cells, hematocrit, and hemoglobin, in addition to an increase in the heart’s ability to pump more blood per contraction at rest. This creates an overall more efficient heart and affects a person’s overall health.”

– Dr. Bhavana Pathak, medical oncologist