OCT 06, 2022 3:00 AM PDT

Caregivers Need Exercise Too

WRITTEN BY: Katie Kokolus

We all know that exercise and a good diet benefit overall health.  Several studies indicate that cancer survivorship improves when patients practice a healthy lifestyle, especially concerning diet and exercise.  A significant body of research has shown that physical activity can reduce recurrence and mortality in patients with many types of cancer.   

A recent study published in Rehabilitation Oncology tackles many questions related to exercise and cancer, confirming the benefits of physical activity for cancer patients.  However, the research presented adds to the plethora of other studies showing these benefits by evaluating the impact of exercise on caregivers, those caring for a family member or friend dealing with cancer.   The study's goals included understanding the effects of diet and exercise and informing interventional programs for both patients and caregivers. 

Regarding both physical activity and nutrition, this study investigated the beliefs, behaviors, and challenges faced by cancer patients and their caregivers.  The study included 52 caregivers (42 female and 10 male) and 50 cancer patients (21 female and 29 male) who answered surveys and participated in interviews to provide information on beliefs and practices regarding diet and exercise.  The patients in the study exhibited a variety of cancers, including gastrointestinal (16.67%), head, neck, or lung (20.83%), hematologic cancers (20.83%), and other solid tumors (41.67%).  Both cohorts skewed active as more than 50% of each cohort were physically active before diagnosis, and about 30% were sedentary.

The study revealed that patients and caregivers both recognized the importance of physical activity; however, both groups also acknowledged that their situation made it a challenge to participate in regular exercise.   Patients and caregivers both found that fatigue and time constraints presented barriers to partaking in regular physical activity.

While most findings related to beliefs and practices of physical activity in cancer patients mirrored those of their caregivers, priorities for diet and nutrition differed among many patient/caregiver pairs.  While many cancer patients actively tried to gain or maintain their weight, caregivers tended to prioritize weight loss through diet. 

Most participants recognized the correlation between diet and health.  Still, many demonstrated confusion (37% of patients and 33% of caregivers) or ambivalence (37% of patients and 33% of caregivers) towards national recommendations describing what comprises a healthy diet suggesting that providing clear information to patients and caregivers could improve diet in both groups.  Participants in the study also noted a desire for information tailored to cancer type supplied by health care providers, researchers, and cancer centers.

The study found fatigue to be a major barrier to physical activity, which presents a targetable area for intervention as physical activity can control fatigue.  The authors suggest that health care professionals could integrate early screening for physical activity and fatigue to identify individuals who would benefit from physical therapy in regard to health and fatigue management. 

While the study confirms much of what is known relating physical activity and a healthy diet to cancer survivorship, its extension to recognizing caretakers is unique, novel, and essential as we often overlook the health and well-being of caregivers.

Sources: Exerc Sport Sci Rev, Rehab Oncol, Br J Sport Med

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
I received a PhD in Tumor Immunology from SUNY Buffalo and BS and MS degrees from Duquesne University. I also completed a postdoc fellowship at the Penn State College of Medicine. I am interested in developing novel strategies to improve the efficacy of immunotherapies used to extend cancer survivorship.
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