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Experts recommend more exercise for cancer survivors

WASHINGTON - Cancer survivors, better work up a sweat.

New guidelines are urging survivors to exercise more, even - hard as it may sound - those who haven't yet finished their treatment.

There's growing evidence that physical activity improves quality of life and eases some cancer-related fatigue. More, it can help fend off a serious decline in physical function that can last long after therapy is finished.

Consider: In one year, women who needed chemotherapy for their breast cancer can see a swapping of muscle for fat that's equivalent to 10 years of normal aging, says Dr. Wendy Demark-Wahnefried of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In other words, a 45-year-old may find herself with the fatter, weaker body type of a 55-year-old.

Scientists have long advised that being overweight and sedentary increases the risk for various cancers.

Among the nation's nearly 12 million cancer survivors, there are hints - although not yet proof - that people who are more active may lower risk of a recurrence. And like everyone who ages, the longer cancer survivors live, the higher their risk for heart disease that exercise definitely fights.

The American College of Sports Medicine, which says it's the world's largest organization of sports medicine and exercise science professionals, convened a panel of cancer and exercise specialists to evaluate the evidence.

Guidelines issued this month advise cancer survivors to aim for the same amount of exercise as recommended for the average person: about 2 1/2 hours a week.

Patients still in treatment may not feel up to that much, the guidelines acknowledge, but should avoid inactivity on their good days. "You don't have to be Lance Armstrong," said Dr. Julia Rowland of the National Cancer Institute, speaking from a survivorship meeting this month that highlighted exercise research. "Walk the dog, play a little golf."

But how much exercise is needed? And what kind? Innovative new studies are under way to start answering those questions, including:

Oregon Health and Science University will study prostate cancer survivors who exercise with their wives.

Demark-Wahnefried led a study of 641 overweight breast cancer survivors that found at-home exercises with some muscle-strengthening, and a better diet, could slow physical decline.

Duke University is recruiting 160 lung cancer patients to test whether aerobic exercise, strength training or both could improve their fitness.

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