Exercise for Lung Cancer Prevention and Survival

How physical activity may lower risk and improve outcomes

Studies are finding that physical activity is linked with a lower risk of developing lung cancer, as well as many other cancers.

With lung cancer, the benefit doesn't seem to be isolated to any one group of people. Men and women, smokers, former smokers, and never smokers, all benefit from exercise. Best of all, the exercise level needed to make a difference does not require hours a day or a pricey health club membership. Even gardening two times a week has been associated with reduced risk.

Overall, people who are physically active appear to have roughly a 20% reduced risk of developing lung cancer.

Exercise and Lung Cancer Survival

For both sexes, exercise appears to reduce the risk of death from lung cancer, although the benefits seem somewhat greater in women. It's challenging to study the effect of exercise on lung cancer in humans. It wouldn't be ethical to have one group of survivors exercise and another intentionally be sedentary. While animal studies can't necessarily translate to humans, a 2019 meta-analysis looking at a number of studies on exercise and tumor growth in rodents found that exercise was significantly associated with slower tumor growth.

That said, studies have shown improved survival in humans as well, especially older women who are physically active when they have lung cancer.

We do know that exercise appears to help people better tolerate treatments, and being able to continue treatments can translate into improved survival.

Lung Cancer Recurrence

While early-stage lung cancer has a higher survival rate than advanced disease, far too many of these tumors return, often at a distant site (metastatic recurrence). It was found that even light exercise appeared to lower the risk of lung cancer recurrence.

Prescription for Exercise

The effect of exercise on lung cancer is significant enough that oncologists have been encouraged to prescribe exercise for people with lung cancer, and have even provided a downloadable form to do so. The recommendation (for those who are able) is exercising up to 30 minutes 3 times per week (moderate-intensity aerobic activity) along with 20 minutes to 30 minutes of resistance exercise twice a week.

Exercise and Quality of Life

A 2019 report looked at studies to date to evaluate evidence for the role of exercise in cancer treatment. For purposes of comparison, physical activity here is defined as at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least three times per week. There was strong evidence that exercise can:

  • Reduce fatigue
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Reduce symptoms of depression: Depression in people with lung cancer is far too common, and has been associated with a significantly higher mortality rate. Of note is that depression with lung cancer may be related to inflammation, and treating inflammation may be a key to reducing symptoms.
  • Improve a person's perception of their physical function
  • Improve overall quality of life

The ability to reduce cancer-related fatigue is very significant as this is one of the most distressing symptoms for many with cancer.

Other positive benefits noted in lung cancer survivors who exercise include better self-esteem, improved body composition, and better sleep. Keep in mind that exercise may act through some of these additional benefits to further improve survival. For example, insomnia in lung cancer patients may reduce survival, and exercise is one way to help.

Tips for Adding Physical Activity to Your Day

As noted earlier, the amount of physical activity needed to reduce the risk of lung cancer—and improve survival and quality of life—can be as simple as gardening a few times per week. Too many of us fail in our intentions to exercise because we set our goals too high. This can be harder yet for those coping with cancer fatigue.

At least 150 minutes of moderate-to-high-intensity physical activity are recommended each week for those who are able.

Don't become discouraged, however, if that's just not possible. Every little bit helps:

  • Plant a garden. Gardening can actually have multiple benefits. Not only does growing beautiful flowers help us think more positively with cancer, but if you grow a few of the foods that can fight lung cancer, you can do double or triple duty with this activity.
  • Dance. Again, you can do double duty with music. Music therapy appears to help with pain and shortness of breath with lung cancer and can add an extra punch to your dancing exercise routine.
  • Sign up for a yoga class. Yoga also appears to increase natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell) that feast on cancer cells.
  • Count your daily steps. If you do this along with someone else it can become even more effective, as you not only have someone to be accountable to, but it can add a healthy dose of competition.
  • Walk around an art gallery or museum
  • Walk with a friend. Not only do you exercise this way, but social interaction is another factor associated with improved survival.

A Word From Verywell

It's pretty clear that physical activity can improve both survival rates and quality of life with cancer. But a combination of positive factors (or reduction of negative factors) is important when it comes to what you can do yourself to lower risk or improve your odds with the disease.

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Article Sources
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  2. Wang A, Qin F, Hedlin H, et al. Physical activity and sedentary behavior in relation to lung cancer incidence and mortality in older women: The Women's Health Initiative. International Journal of Cancer. 2016. 139(10):2178-92. doi:10.1002/ijc.30281

  3. Vijayvergia N, Shah PC, Denlinger CS, et al. Survivorship in Non–Small Cell Lung Cancer: Challenges Faced and Steps Forward. Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. 2015. 13(9):1151-61. doi:10.6004/jnccn.2015.0140

  4. Schmitz KH, Campbell AM, Stuiver MM, et al. Exercise is medicine in oncology: Engaging clinicians to help patients move through cancer. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2019. doi:10.3322/caac.21579

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