Sports and cancer: no panacea, but a necessary aid

When are sports healthy, how often should you engage in sports and what effect do sports have on the body – over the past few decades, there were always different answers to these questions. Many studies that were conducted in the past however confirm the assumption that sports and exercise always support health, even if someone is already sick.


Photo: Two senior citizens do pushups at a forest glade; Copyright: Trautmann

Exercise does not just benefit the body, but also the soul. Whether you are healthy or sick - what is important is an exchange with others and the feeling of having achieved something you didn’t dare to physically do before. All this is important for people; © Arne Trautmann

It is a natural response by humans: if you become severely ill, you want to hole up somewhere alone, withdraw, and perhaps even sit out the illness until it is hopefully finally over. Cancer patients are all too familiar with these feelings. The shock of potentially receiving a deadly diagnosis lets most patients fall into a state of numbness at first. Added to this is the fear of the unknown, because only few of us know what’s ahead and what therapy will really look like. The only thing that is for certain is that the treatment is going to be exhausting and that you had better go easy on your body to save your energy. Or maybe not?

"In the past we believed that sports and health were entirely unrelated. During the 1950s and 1960s, it was therefore suggested to completely rest during chemotherapy. This did not change until 1978 after a study by Prof. Klaus Schüle proved that the opposite is true: exercise helps cancer patients," says Dr. Freerk Baumann of the German Sport University Cologne (German: Deutsche Sporthochschule Köln). "By now it has become clear that those, who already exercise during chemotherapy, alleviate possible side effects."

However, the sports scientist points out that patients should not train on their own, but should rather seek the guidance of a trained therapist: "In so-called oncological exercise therapy, OET in short, patients receive an individual training schedule depending on their cancer that considers not putting strain on surgery scars for instance. We also pay close attention to the patient’s individual fitness."
Photo: Two women at the gym doing an abdominal exercise; Copyright: Guyon

60 percent of cancer patients today can be cured; the remaining 40 percent often still live for many years. People with chronic cancer also benefit from oncological exercise therapy; © Jean-Marie Guyon

So far, OET is only offered at the University Hospital of Cologne, Germany. Patients can perform circuit-training exercises on different equipment in a 110m² area. The project has been running since November 2012 and is very well received. To also be able to evaluate this patient training for studies, each patient receives a chip card that is inserted into the exercise machine. Training objectives for the individual exercise machines are recorded on there. The advantage is that patients do not overdo it, but rather train exactly the amount previously discussed with their physicians. Freerk Baumann is excited about the medical fitness course: "This shows that scientific findings can be successfully carried over into practice".

Unfortunately, patients are not able to enjoy a modern fitness studio that also offers medical fitness just anywhere. Even though there are collaborations between clinical facilities and "traditional" fitness studios where even cancer patients are able to train, this is only for follow-up care and not during cancer treatment. This also begs the questions as to how much patients are already being advised of the importance of sports and exercise during therapy. Patient Willi E. for instance, who came down with prostate cancer in 2011 at age 70 reveals: "While I was at the hospital, I was asked to quickly move again, but this was primarily about preventing thrombosis. I didn’t do sports in the actual sense of the word. That only came later in rehabilitation, which offered water aerobics. However, I did not continue with it after my stay. Nobody actually told me to regularly exercise." These might be individual cases, but it definitely does not hurt to point out the existing offers more strongly than before. Dr. Baumann also criticizes that patients are often not being informed correctly: "Expert advice is still missing at the moment. Many cancer sports groups are not assisted by physiotherapists, but by laypersons. A physician's recommendation to slowly start to exercise again after chemotherapy is also not sufficiently effective. The goal is to already start OET during cancer treatment, to continue during cancer rehabilitation and to instruct patients to also continue to exercise at home."

It would be great, if Baumann’s vision would soon become a reality. After all, the fact is that there are more and more patients, who continue to live with cancer for many more years. These years should include great quality of life so it is not just about mere survival.
Photo: Simone Ernst; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Simone Ernst and translated by Elena O'Meara.