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Practicing yoga can improve strength and balance, help manage stress, and ease discomfort of muscle or joint pain.

But can yoga help cancer patients?

Two studies presented at the 2023 American Society of Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting found the practice of yoga not only improved cancer patients’ quality of life, but also decreased the chance their cancer spread or returned.

Dr. Nathan Parker, Health Outcomes and Behavior Department

Dr. Nathan Parker, Health Outcomes and Behavior Department

“For many cancer patients, yoga can provide a gentler and more approachable form of exercise, and the gains one can make in flexibility and strength via yoga can improve the tolerability of aerobic and resistance training,” said Dr. Nathan Parker, a researcher in the Department of Health Outcomes and Behavior at Moffitt Cancer Center.  “Like other forms of exercise, yoga can help with reducing inflammation and stress and improving circulation.”

The first study investigated the impact of yoga on inflammation. More than 500 cancer survivors who had received treatment for the disease between two months and five years earlier were randomly assigned to attend yoga or health education classes twice a week for four weeks. They then underwent a series of blood tests. Researchers found that those who took yoga classes had significantly lower levels of pro-inflammatory markers compared to those who didn’t.

“Inflammation plays a complicated role in cancer. Some inflammatory processes are beneficial because they signal for our immune system to fight against tumor cells. Chronic inflammation that’s not effectively controlled, however, can help tumors grow and proliferate and can also contribute to worsening side effects and conditions like fatigue and cancer cachexia. Forms of exercise and physical activity, including yoga, can help to reduce chronic inflammation,” Parker said.

The second study examined yoga’s effect on fatigue in cancer patients over 60. More than 170 patients were once again randomly assigned to attend yoga or health education classes. Results showed that older survivors can safely use yoga for treating side effects and that yoga led to improvements in fatigue and quality of life.  

Parker says yoga and other forms of exercise can also benefit patients in active treatment physically and psychosocially. It can help reduce stress and help maintain strength and fitness before, during and after treatment.

He recommends cancer patients discuss their exercise plans with their oncologists and seek help from qualified exercise professionals to help design safe exercise programs. Ideally, patients should work their way up to doing a combination of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise three days a week for 30 minutes and resistance training twice a week.

“Yoga can be a great addition to a routine or even take the place of some of the aerobic and resistance training for someone who is working their way into exercising regularly,” Parker said.