Health Column: Group exercise can be key to health

Studies suggest that cancer survivors who join a physical activity program may have a better chance of making healthy changes than those who try it alone. And the health rewards are immediate.

When people receive a cancer diagnosis, their distress is often countered by a greater willingness to make healthy changes. Several studies have found that survivors can improve their quality of life and survival by getting guidance for good nutrition, physical activity and weight management.

Statistics say it’s harder for people to make lifestyle changes for better health on their own. One Canadian study reported that, in general, people diagnosed with cancer exercised 30 percent less than before the diagnosis. Another study by Duke University researchers found that the majority of cancer patients surveyed ate fewer than five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

But participating in nutrition and exercise programs seems to be the key to improving lifestyle habits for cancer survivors, according to a growing number of research trials.

One example of what works to change habits came from the University of California in San Diego, where Dr. Cheryl Rock led the Breast Cancer Survivors’ Health and Physical Exercise Program.

“The overall goal was weight loss because there is at least 30 percent greater chance of cancer recurrence and death among overweight or obese breast cancer patients,” Dr. Rock said. She found that the immediate benefits of feeling better helped motivate survivors to do physical activity to prevent recurrence. The study group that received guidance with food choices and physical activity succeeded in losing weight. Group counseling helped reframe negative perceptions.

“There’s negative self-talk, such as ‘I’m so fat, people will laugh if I exercise,’ or ‘I’m too tired,’ ” she said. “The counseling helps to change thinking patterns like these to positive thoughts like, ‘All I have to do is start,’ or ‘I’ll just do 10 minutes.’ ”

Most of the women in the treatment group lost 10 to 15 pounds in the first six months and continued to lose weight slowly. The average participant in this group doubled her weekly physical activity to about seven hours per week, Dr. Rock said.

“Like all of us, the women in the study see the benefits but have barriers,” Dr. Rock said. “Often, barriers are in real time, like being too busy or too tired today.” So instead of touting future benefits, her study focused on immediate benefits like having more energy and being in better spirits afterward.

Breast cancer survivors in the Women’s Health Initiative study at the Yale School of Public Health were found to live longer if they walked briskly three or more hours per week compared to postmenopausal survivors who had low levels of activity. The more-active women benefited even if they were not active before their diagnosis.

To find a walking group or a physical activity program for cancer survivors, check with your local hospital or county recreation department. The American College of Sports Medicine now certifies trainers to work with cancer patients and survivors. Some yoga instructors are trained to meet the special needs of cancer survivors. Consult local yoga centers or the Yoga Alliance to find a cancer-trained instructor, or simply try a “gentle” yoga class.

This column was provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research, which conducts research into the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk.