Home  /  News  /  Research and Innovation  / 

Exercise Changes Cancer Survivor’s Lives for the Better

Article Summary
  • Current research shows that regular exercise improves health outcomes and decreases the risk of cancer returning for cancer survivors.
  • Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center support services includes exercise-focused programs that cater exercise to patient needs and goals.
  • Sylvester researcher Dr. Paola Rossi says strength training to prevent muscle loss is particularly important for cancer patients.

Twenty years ago, doctors likely told cancer patients to rest, save their energy and steer clear of exercise or strength training.

The advice is much different today. In fact, it’s the opposite, according to Paola Rossi, M.D., M.S.Ed., clinical program director of lifestyle medicine at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“Scientific evidence has emerged showing that exercise not only improves overall cancer patients’ health outcomes—symptoms like fatigue, depression, anxiety and diminished quality of life—but also decreases the risk of cancer recurrence and new cancer development,” Dr. Rossi said. “Overall, we now know that exercise is essential for cancer survivors’ health.”

Sylvester Support for Lifestyle Programs

Sylvester’s cancer support services offer patients programs and educational opportunities, including an online library of exercise videos by oncology exercise physiologists and one-on-one in-person or virtual sessions to individualize exercise. 

Older woman exercising with free weights on a boardwalk
Research shows the benefits of consistent aerobic exercise and strength training for cancer survivors.

“It’s so important that exercise physiologists that specialize in oncology address survivors’ special needs,” Dr. Rossi said. “There is no cookie-cutter recommendation that fits all cancer patients.”

Sylvester Training and Walking Opportunities

Sylvester’s “Believe in You” training program is currently preparing participants for the annual Dolphins Challenge Cancer (DCC) event, which takes place Feb. 24. A signature Miami Dolphins initiative, DCC is the No. 1 fundraising event in the National Football League, with 100% of the money raised directly supporting groundbreaking research at Sylvester.

The training program helps survivors prepare for the DCC’s 5K walk/run and bike rides. Training is already underway in the 18-week program that provides coaching and oversight based on the survivors’ goals and health status.

“Many survivors start out feeling they can’t walk even one kilometer. ‘Believe in You’ gives them a safe space to get prepared and build community and confidence to participate in the DCC,” Dr. Rossi said.

On Saturday, Jan. 13, Sylvester will host the inaugural “Together We Walk” event, which features a 5K walk at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“The idea there is not only to do a practice walk or run coming up at the DCC. This is a more intimate event for Sylvester survivors and their care providers,” Dr. Rossi said. “Doctors, nurse practitioners and all the support services are invited to walk with our survivors.”

Research Supports Exercise for Cancer Survivors

This shift in thinking about exercise is thanks to an ever-growing body of exercise oncology research showing the benefits of aerobic exercise and strength building.

Dr. Paola Rossi
Dr. Paola Rossi says current research supports strength training as a way for cancer patients to prevent loss of muscle.

Researchers at Sylvester are leading national efforts in lifestyle research for optimal cancer outcomes. Currently, two trials at Sylvester, Lifestyle Intervention of Food and Exercise for Lymphoma Survivors (LIFE-L) and Trial of Exercise and Lifestyle (TEAL) in Women with Ovarian Cancer, focus on exercise, diet during treatment and how lifestyle interventions impact treatment-related symptoms and patients’ ability to complete treatment on time.

A soon-to-be-open clinical trial will study supervised exercise compared to a diet intervention, combined exercise and diet and normal care in advanced breast cancer.

“The vast majority of studies so far have been done on exercise after treatment. Now, we really want to know if we increase physical activity during cancer treatment, will it have an impact on the cancer treatment itself?” Dr. Rossi said. “A lot of the exercise oncology scientific minds have moved into that realm.”

Exercise in All Phases of the Cancer Journey

Exercise is recommended in the American Cancer Society’s nutrition and physical activity guideline for cancer survivors, updated in 2022. Tracy Crane, Ph.D., RDN, co-leader of the Cancer Control Program and director of lifestyle medicine, prevention and digital health at Sylvester, is among the guideline’s authors. Dr. Rossi works with Dr. Crane, also associate professor of medical oncology at the Miller School, and her lab to study exercise oncology.

The guideline recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise and two days of strength training per week. If that’s unrealistic, cancer patients (or survivors, as the definition has changed to include the time of diagnosis in survivorship) should be as active as possible.

“The biggest focus that may be different between prevention and survivorship is the emphasis on strength training. In the setting of cancer, strength training is so important to prevent muscle loss and preserve quality of life in survivors,” Dr. Rossi said.

Many oncologists are sending patients to the “Believe in You” training program to learn about lifestyle changes, including diet, noted Dr. Rossi.

“It’s a wonderful tribute to the power of scientific research and the impact it can have on someone’s life,” she said.

Sylvester Staff

If you are a doctor, nurse, practitioner or support staff at Sylvester and would like to participate in “Together We Walk,” email Dr. Rossi.

Tags: cancer and exercise, Dr. Paola Rossi, Dr. Tracy Crane, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center