For Cancer Survivors, Strength-Building Exercise Can Be Safe and Effective

Quality of Life - Exercise

For Cancer Survivors, Strength-Building Exercise Can Be Safe and Effective


SEATTLE – For cancer survivors, exercise that focuses on strength training is physically safe and effective and also beneficial from an all round psychosocial point of view. This is the conclusion of study  published online in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship.

Karen SyrjalaIn all, 221 cancer survivors took part in a 12-week “Exercise and Thrive” program offered at Seattle-area YMCAs and led by Karen Syrjala, Ph.D., co-director of the Fred Hutchinson Patients Cancer Research Center Survivorship Program.

Benefits of the specially tailored exercise program were multiple, Dr. Syrjala reports.  Participants were able to reduce their fatigue and insomnia and improve their physical function, musculo-skeletal symptoms, mental health, social support and physical activity.

Survivors who participated also showed notable improvement in blood pressure, upper and lower body strength, walking endurance and flexibility.

The program focused on strength building because this is the area of greatest need and potential benefit for many cancer survivors.

“Cancer can cause loss of muscle mass and result in fatigue. Strength training is needed to rebuild this muscle and to generate energy,” Syrjala said.

The study found a high rate of effectiveness for those who continued with the exercise classes, and relatively few people dropped out.

Learning to stick with an exercise program is important for cancer survivors

Strength training“When people are tired they tend to want to rest until they feel better, and then resting becomes a habit," Syrjala said. "The support element is essential to their sticking with an exercise program.” Studies have shown that after cancer treatment, people have a higher rate of being sedentary compared to the general population.

“Many people who were active before cancer become inactive afterward, and those where were inactive before are very unlikely to become active after cancer,” she said.

Yet only about half of oncologists ask patients about their physical activity on some or most visits. "Insufficient time” ranks as the highest barrier to promotion of physical activity.

“The benefits of exercise for cancer patients have been demonstrated as early as at the time of diagnosis,” Syrjala said. “This suggests that earlier intervention by health care providers to prescribe safe exercise programs may be warranted.”

Study participants did not lose a significant amount of weight, a finding consistent with those of other exercise programs that focus on strength training.

Former patients who get moving benefit their minds and bodies

The “Exercise and Thrive” program involved group sessions with personal trainers, who were given a two-day workshop on cancer-specific exercise needs. The instructors received training in how to address the emotional needs of survivors and how to avoid potential hazards of strength-building exercise. For example, in some former patients, if weight lifting is unrestrained, such activity can trigger lymphedema, an accumulation of fluid in tissue that causes limb swelling.

“The most important lesson learned from our study is not the evidence that exercise matters. What’s important is that we saw benefits for a community-based program that was able to use personal trainers who had limited cancer training. This made it possible for many more survivors to recover and thrive in a program that was safe and effective and in their communities,” Syrjala said.

Syrjala said that partnering with regional YMCA facilities proved helpful because cancer survivors were able to access the programs easily, at low cost – and without having to live near a cancer rehabilitation facility. Similar programs for cancer survivors are available in a growing number of states.

Dr. Syrjala is Director of Behavioral Sciences and co-director of the Survivorship Program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Her co-authors included Scott Baker, M.D., co-director of the Hutchinson Center Survivorship Program; Emily Jo Rajotte, Survivorship Program administrator; Jean C. Yi, a staff scientist in the Hutchinson Center’s Clinical Research Division; Lindsey Gregerson of the YMCA of Greater Seattle; and Andrea Leiserowitz of Oncology Physical Therapy, Eugene, Ore.
The LIVESTRONG Foundation and the Amgen Foundation of Washington State supported the research.
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center features interdisciplinary teams of scientists and humanitarians who work together to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Their researchers include  Nobel laureates. For more information, please visit

Edited for by J. Strax.

Quality of Life - Exercise