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Active Older Cancer Survivors Have Better Mental Health

Regardless of cancer type, survivors are in better mental and physical shape when they reduce sitting time

   

Thanks to advances in cancer screening and treatment, the U.S. has about 17 million cancer survivors, two-thirds of whom are age 65 or older.

Which raises an important issue: How can those survivors can stay healthy, both mentally and physically, as they age?

That is the question scientists asked in a new study that looked at nearly 78,000 people (average age 78), including both cancer survivors and cancer-free adults. The answer is pretty simple: Spend less time sitting and more time moving.

The study from the American Cancer Society and published in the journal Cancer suggests that more physical activity and less sedentary time is associated with greater mental and physical health for older cancer survivors, as well as for older adults without a history of cancer.

“The findings show that no matter what type of cancer you had, how old you are, or the number of years you have survived, you can improve your mental and physical health by moving more and sitting less,” study coauthor Erika Rees-Punia, principal scientist with the American Cancer Society, said in an interview.

Rees-Punia and her colleagues looked at data collected from people in the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort.

They analyzed time spent doing aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening activities, sitting time, and mental and physical health data, including people’s feelings of depression and anxiety or trouble thinking clearly, and whether they had physical difficulty doing everyday activities, like carrying groceries or walking. They also compared data on survivors who were one to five years and six to 10 years postdiagnosis with those who had no history of cancer.

Bottom line: Those who moved the most and sat the least were in better physical and mental shape than those who were sedentary — regardless of their cancer history. Those who reported sitting less than three hours a day had the highest mental health score, while those who sat more than six hours a day had the lowest, the study found. The results were the same for physical health.

The research is noteworthy because up to now few studies have looked at the link between physical activity and the quality of life in older survivors of different types of cancer compared with people who are cancer-free, said Rees-Punia. The study also involved a much larger number of people than most prior studies.

“Some studies would look at aerobic exercise in older adults and others might look at exercise among cancer survivors, but not many would compare the two groups. Also, the average age of participants in our study was 78 — there’s not a whole lot of studies that focus on that age group,” she said.

And there is a growing need for such research: By 2040 the number of U.S. cancer survivors is projected to grow to 26 million, with 73 percent age 65-plus.

There’s also another reason these findings are good news for older adults, notes Rees-Punia. Those who are staying home to avoid COVID-19 exposure can still help their mind and body by taking regular walks — the type of exercise most of those in the study did — or any other physical activity that gets you moving.

What You Should Know:

  • Aim for a 20-minute daily walk. The American Cancer Society’s guidelines for cancer prevention recommends moderate exercise at least 150 minutes a week — for example, a 20-minute walk each day — or vigorous exercise at least 75 minutes a week. Moderate exercise includes walking, doubles tennis or water aerobics. Vigorous exercise includes hiking or bicycling with hills and singles tennis.
  • The best exercise is the one you’ll do. “If that means an online exercise class, or swimming or playing with your grandchildren, if you do it regularly, that’s what matters,” said American Cancer Society researcher Erika Rees-Punia.
  • Take a five-minute break. If you are sitting in front of a computer or the TV, set a timer to take a five-minute break every hour to stretch or walk around, said Rees-Punia. “It’s an easy way to cut your sitting time by an hour or more each week." —Candy Sagon

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Membership Expires: Renew

Active Older Cancer Survivors Have Better Mental Health

Regardless of cancer type, survivors are in better mental and physical shape when they reduce sitting time

   

Thanks to advances in cancer screening and treatment, the U.S. has about 17 million cancer survivors, two-thirds of whom are age 65 or older.

Which raises an important issue: How can those survivors can stay healthy, both mentally and physically, as they age?

That is the question scientists asked in a new study that looked at nearly 78,000 people (average age 78), including both cancer survivors and cancer-free adults. The answer is pretty simple: Spend less time sitting and more time moving.

The study from the American Cancer Society and published in the journal Cancer suggests that more physical activity and less sedentary time is associated with greater mental and physical health for older cancer survivors, as well as for older adults without a history of cancer.

“The findings show that no matter what type of cancer you had, how old you are, or the number of years you have survived, you can improve your mental and physical health by moving more and sitting less,” study coauthor Erika Rees-Punia, principal scientist with the American Cancer Society, said in an interview.

Rees-Punia and her colleagues looked at data collected from people in the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort.

They analyzed time spent doing aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening activities, sitting time, and mental and physical health data, including people’s feelings of depression and anxiety or trouble thinking clearly, and whether they had physical difficulty doing everyday activities, like carrying groceries or walking. They also compared data on survivors who were one to five years and six to 10 years postdiagnosis with those who had no history of cancer.

Bottom line: Those who moved the most and sat the least were in better physical and mental shape than those who were sedentary — regardless of their cancer history. Those who reported sitting less than three hours a day had the highest mental health score, while those who sat more than six hours a day had the lowest, the study found. The results were the same for physical health.

The research is noteworthy because up to now few studies have looked at the link between physical activity and the quality of life in older survivors of different types of cancer compared with people who are cancer-free, said Rees-Punia. The study also involved a much larger number of people than most prior studies.

“Some studies would look at aerobic exercise in older adults and others might look at exercise among cancer survivors, but not many would compare the two groups. Also, the average age of participants in our study was 78 — there’s not a whole lot of studies that focus on that age group,” she said.

And there is a growing need for such research: By 2040 the number of U.S. cancer survivors is projected to grow to 26 million, with 73 percent age 65-plus.

There’s also another reason these findings are good news for older adults, notes Rees-Punia. Those who are staying home to avoid COVID-19 exposure can still help their mind and body by taking regular walks — the type of exercise most of those in the study did — or any other physical activity that gets you moving.

What You Should Know:

  • Aim for a 20-minute daily walk. The American Cancer Society’s guidelines for cancer prevention recommends moderate exercise at least 150 minutes a week — for example, a 20-minute walk each day — or vigorous exercise at least 75 minutes a week. Moderate exercise includes walking, doubles tennis or water aerobics. Vigorous exercise includes hiking or bicycling with hills and singles tennis.
  • The best exercise is the one you’ll do. “If that means an online exercise class, or swimming or playing with your grandchildren, if you do it regularly, that’s what matters,” said American Cancer Society researcher Erika Rees-Punia.
  • Take a five-minute break. If you are sitting in front of a computer or the TV, set a timer to take a five-minute break every hour to stretch or walk around, said Rees-Punia. “It’s an easy way to cut your sitting time by an hour or more each week." —Candy Sagon