Exercise can be a good tool to help boost energy and general wellbeing. Cancer patients often turn to it to see if it will help clear their minds and fight back against some of the effects of their treatment. Is higher intensity in a workout better than a more relaxed pace? According to a new study, there’s not much difference.

Uppsala University in Sweden teamed up with the Universities of Linköping and Lund to analyze physical training and its impacts on cancer. They found that differing intensities didn’t translate to a large impact on the patients’ day-to-day lives. The results were published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.

Ingrid Demmelmaier, Associate Professor of Physiotherapy at Uppsala University, said, “The conclusions we draw from the study are, first, that whether the training is of high or low-to-medium intensity doesn’t seem to matter much. The groups’ results didn’t differ in a clinically relevant way – that is, there was no difference likely to make a difference in the patients’ everyday life.”


The study included 577 patients between the ages of 30 and 84 who had recently been diagnosed with breast, prostate, or colorectal cancer. One group did high-intensity resistance and endurance training, while the other had low-to-moderate intensity workouts. Half were also randomly assigned assistance with their exercise plans. The training lasted six months, with endurance training done at home and resistance training done at a gym.

Researchers say there were only slight differences with regard to intensity. The group that had higher intensity workouts had somewhat less fatigue, more strength in their leg muscles, and slightly better fitness than the low-to-moderate exercise group. There was also little difference between those who had extra support and those who didn’t. Study authors said that may have partly been due to the fact that the study entailed a lot of support anyway, with thorough training instructions, a heart-rate monitor, and instructor-led group training.

Researchers plan to follow up on how these measures affect participants in the long-term.

The National Cancer Institute says moderate exercise provides benefits for cancer survivors, as well. It notes that a 2018 report from an American College of Sports Medicine International Multidisciplinary Roundtable recommended all survivors have some kind of regular physical activity.


The NCI adds, “The Roundtable also found strong evidence that moderate-intensity aerobic training and/or resistance exercise during and after cancer treatment can reduce anxiety, depressive symptoms, and fatigue, as well as improving health-related quality of life and physical function.”

What’s enough exercise? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says just 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity each week will provide health benefits. Muscle-training should be done at least two days a week, as well.

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Kathryn Schmitz, Ph. D., with the Department of Public Health Sciences at Penn State University, is a researcher in exercise oncology. Her work helped form the American College of Sports Medicine’s guidance and recommendations for exercise among cancer patients and survivors.

She says, “Exercise after a diagnosis of breast, colon, or prostate cancer is associated with longer survival. While there is insufficient evidence to draw the same conclusion for all cancer types, there are enough benefits of physical activity, in general, that we recommend that survivors of all cancers follow the general public health recommendations for physical activity.”


She added that no one needs to go from sedentary to running marathons. Going from no exercise to some exercise will still provide benefits.

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