Exercise for Lung Cancer Prevention and Survival

How physical activity may lower risk and improve outcomes

woman gardening as a form of exercise to lower her lung cancer risk

Musketeer / Digital Vision / Getty Images

Exercise may lower the risk of lung cancer and improve survival and quality of life for those who have been diagnosed. This isn't surprising. All you need to do is a magazine, turn on the TV, or watch runners on the sidewalk as you drive by—and it’s clear that we are paying attention to fitness. Lung cancer is no exception. But what exactly do the studies show? For example, how much exercise do you need to either lower your risk or improve your odds if you have the disease?

Exercise and Lung Cancer Risk

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. To get an idea of how significant this is, think of the treatments you may currently be coping with for lung cancer. Certainly, you want to continue these conventional treatments as well, but exercise is, in a way, a method for improving survival, but with a positive effect on your overall well-being rather than side effects.

The fact that medicine an even be considered a treatment for lung cancer is evidenced in the title of a recent report: "Exercise is medicine in oncology."

It's challenging to study the effect of exercise on lung cancer in human. 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, an 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.

As far as amount of time, it's recommended that those who are able engage in moderate to high intensity physical activity at least 150 minutes every week. Don't become discouraged, however, if that's just not possible. Every little bit helps. What are a few simple things we can do to add physical activity to our days?

Fun Ways to Exercise

  • 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 to the radio. 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.
  • Purchase a pedometer, and set a goal of a certain number of steps daily. 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.

Practical Ways to Exercise

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Park as far as possible from your destination.

Exercise That Benefits Your Wallet

  • Walk instead of driving when possible

Beyond Exercising

We have a tendency to focus on single methods of reducing risk or improving survival. For example, countless studies have been done looking at a single food that may lower cancer risk or increase life expectancy. Yet, it is usually a combination of several factors that makes a difference. For example, most cancers occur as a result of an accumulation of mutations that have different causes (cancer is usually multifactorial), and most are treated with a combination of therapies (multimodal therapy).

Likewise, 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.

Other Ways to Lower Risk

There are many ways to lower risk, but we will only mention a few here.

Check your home for radon: Radon is thought to be the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and the second leading cause overall. Testing is inexpensive and simply, and radon mitigation can almost always eliminate the problem if it's present.

Eat a healthy diet: Many studies have found that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of developing lung cancer. It's likely that it's the combination of foods is the key rather than any single foods, and many researchers now recommend that you eat a "rainbow" of foods each day in order to get a combination of healthful phytonutrients.

Other Ways to Improve Survival

If you're living with lung cancer, there are some things you can do on your own that may improve outcomes. That said, it's important to note that many people do everything right and their cancer progresses, while others don't care for their health and do well. The research is also in its infancy, but fortunately their are very few side effects associated with these factors.

Eat a healthy diet: The phytonutrients that play a role in prevention may differ from those that are helpful in addressing a cancer already present. For example, some of these phytochemicals prevent the formation of carcinogens in the body (prevention), whereas others may have anti-angiogenic effects (effects that make it more difficult for tumors to grow obtain blood vessels needed for growth).

Get a second opinion: Or, maybe a third or fourth. Oncology is changing so rapidly that it's challenging for even oncologists who specialize in lung cancer to stay abreast of the latest research.

Join the lung cancer community: Not only is social interaction associated with better survival rates, but it's now not uncommon for people to learn about new and better treatments from other survivors instead of their doctor.

A Word From Verywell

It's pretty clear that physical activity can improve both survival rates and quality of life with cancer, though getting started, especially if you're coping with cancer fatigue, can seem formidable. It may be worth taking the time to brainstorm about the activities you enjoy the most as well as people you can spend time being active with.

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