Exercise for Lung Cancer Prevention and Survival

The Role of Physical Activity in Improving Lung Cancer Outcomes

woman gardening as a form of exercise
Physical activity like gardening may help prevent lung cancer, and increase survival for those with the disease. Musketeer/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Can exercise raise survival for people with lung cancer or even help prevent it? It’s hard not to hear about the benefits of exercise these days. Open a magazine, turn on the TV, or watch runners on the sidewalk as you drive by -- its clear that we are paying attention to fitness. Lung cancer is no exception.

Being physically active not only helps prevent lung cancer in the first place, but it appears to improve survival and quality of life for those already diagnosed, according to a 2007 study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research's Sixth Annual International Conference on Cancer Prevention.

Prevention of Lung Cancer

The study found that physical activity is linked with a lower risk of developing lung cancer. And, the benefit extends to everyone; men and women, as well as those who were smokers, former smokers, or had never touched a cigarette, all benefited from exercise. Best of all, the activities evaluated did not require hours a day or a pricey health club membership. Even gardening two times a week was associated with a reduced risk.  Overall, people who are physically active appear to have a 20% reduced risk of developing lung cancer.

Improved Survival for Those Who Have Lung Cancer

For both sexes, exercise reduced the risk of death from lung cancer, although the benefits seem greater in women.  To get an idea how significant this is, think of the treatments you may currently be coping with for lung cancer.  Certainly you want to do these conventional treatments as well, but exercise is, in a way, a raise to increase survival like chemotherapy, but with a positive effect instead of, well, side effects.

Improved Quality of Life

Physical activity appears to improve quality of life for those with cancer in general. It also has been found to decrease cancer-related fatigue, one of the most distressing symptoms for many with cancer.

Other positive benefits noted in lung cancer survivors who exercised included a reduction in anxiety, 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, the amount of physical activity needed to reduce the risk of lung cancer -- and improve survival and quality of life in those with cancer -- 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 dealing with the fatigue of cancer.

What are a few simple things we can do to add physical activity to our days?

  • Plant a garden.
  • Dance to the radio.
  • 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.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Park as far as possible from your destination.
  • Walk around an art gallery or museum.

What Else Can You Do to Lower Risk or Improve Survival?

Most discussions about exercise bring up diet as well, and this is no exception.  If you are looking for ways to reduce your risk, check out this list of superfoods that may lower lung cancer risk.

 If you're living with lung cancer today, check out these lung cancer fighting foods that may benefit you during treatment.  And finally, there are other things you can do to improve your survival - some that your doctor may never mention, such as staying connected with family and friends and finding new friends among the lung cancer community for starters.


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Blanchard, C. et al. Cancer survivors' adherence to lifestyle behavior recommendations and associations with health-related quality of life: results from the American Cancer Society's SCS-II. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2008. May 1;26(13):2198-204.

Cramp, F. and J. Daniel. Exercise for the management of cancer-related fatigue in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008. 2008. Apr 16;(2):CD006145.

Kubic, A. et al. A case-control study of lifestyle and lung cancer associations by histological types. Neoplasma. 2008. 55(3):192-99.

Kubic, A. et al. Interactions between smoking and other exposures associated with lung cancer risk in women: diet and physical activity. Neoplasma. 2007;54(1):83-8.

Leitzmann, M., Powers, H., Anderson, A. et al. European Code against Cancer 4th Edition: Physical activity and cancer. Cancer Epidemiology. 2015. 39 Suppl 1:S46-55.

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