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People who have had cancer, who are able to keep mobile, can benefit from interventions aimed at increasing physical activity. Being active regularly is already known to improve health and may also reduce the risk of cancer returning and improve life expectancy.

This NIHR-funded review looked at what kinds of exercise interventions can lead to behaviour change in adult cancer survivors. Researchers specifically looked at the components that are linked to continued physical activity at least three months after the intervention stops.

Patients who received only printed materials also achieved modest increases in physical activity, suggesting low-intensity interventions may be sufficient in promoting small changes in behaviour for some motivated groups. By contrast, the results suggest that more intensive and costly interventions with support could be targeted at groups such as older people with physical limitations.

Why was this study needed?

While advances in early diagnosis and treatment mean that more people are surviving cancer, the disease can have a long-term impact on health. Cancer survivors are more likely to suffer from other serious conditions, including heart disease.

Few people achieve the recommended levels of physical activity after cancer. To gain long-term health benefits, the activity has to be sustained over time, but we know little about which interventions are successful in promoting long-term change.

This is the first review of physical activity maintenance across cancer types. Reviewers looked at changes in intervention groups and control groups. Those who agree to take part in exercise trials are often highly motivated to make changes and may modify their behaviour irrespective of group allocation.

What did this study do?

This systematic review and meta-analysis pooled 19 studies which measured the effect of interventions for physical activity on 5,792 adult cancer survivors. Numbers of participants in each study ranged from 41 to 641. Studies were from the USA, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Ireland and one from the UK.

Interventions included supervised group exercise sessions, telephone coaching, education and encouragement to do home-based exercise. Providers included physiotherapists, counsellors and health coaches. Control groups were mostly given printed exercise leaflets.

Participants were not representative of cancer populations more broadly. Many were relatively young, (average age 58) well-educated women most often after breast cancer. Self-reported physical activity measures were used, which may not be entirely accurate.

What did it find?

Three months after the end of the intervention:

  • Physical activity was maintained at a higher level: an average of 65 minutes per week (95% confidence interval [CI] 46 to 85) compared with an increase of 27 minutes in the control groups (95% CI 11 to 43).
  • Comparing the groups, interventions had a moderate effect on increasing physical activity (standardised mean difference 0.25, 95% CI 0.16 to 0.35).
  • Participants in studies that did not produce any notable change in behaviour tended to be older and had more physical limitations. Interventions in less successful groups were less likely to include a supervised element.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

NICE recommends exercise to improve cancer-related fatigue. Their general recommendations for inactive people are to build up to being moderately active for at least 150 minutes per week, with two sessions of resistance exercise each week to build muscle strength and to avoid inactivity.

This is in line with American guidelines, which recommend cancer survivors follow general population exercise guidelines.

What are the implications?

These findings support the conclusions of other studies in cancer populations that even minimal input, such as providing printed exercise advice, can increase physical activity levels.

As there was variability in the interventions provided and providers delivering them, there remains some uncertainty about how to deliver exercise programs.

Where resources are scarce, the more expensive one-to-one support could be offered to vulnerable groups, if it works for them. Younger, more physically fit adults may achieve meaningful improvement in physical activity with lower-level intervention.

Citation and Funding

Grimmett C, Corbett T, Brunet J et al. Systematic review and meta-analysis of maintenance of physical activity behaviour change in cancer survivors. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2019:16(37).

This project was funded by an NIHR post-doctoral fellowship.



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Mishra S, Scherer R, Geigle P et al. Exercise interventions on health‐related quality of life for cancer survivors. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;(8):CD007586.

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NICE. Advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and treatment. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2009.

NICE. Prostate cancer: diagnosis and management. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2019.

Rock CL, Doyle C, Demark‐Wahnefried W et al. Nutrition and physical activity guidelines for cancer survivors. CA: Cancer J Clin. 2012;62(4):242-74.

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