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Research Helps Cancer Survivors Improve Health

Students are playing a key role in research at LMU that is identifying ways exercise can help cancer survivors strengthen their bodies and promote improved survival prognosis.

A recent study in which cancer survivors performed a specific regimen three times a week, for one hour each session, showed highly encouraging results: Body fat and waist circumference decreased, bone density improved and participants made noticeable gains in flexibility and strength.

“What we’ve found so far is that the program is improving the overall health of the participants,” said Heather Tarleton, an assistant professor in the Health and Human Sciences Department who led the study. 

The finding that exercise improves health may not appear to be groundbreaking,  but for cancer survivors—who often suffer fatigue, pain, nausea, and other side effects of their treatment—the results are encouraging. “They are feeling more fully engaged in life,” Tarleton said of the participants. “That will improve their chances of staying healthy for a longer time.”

The program was designed by Tarleton and her colleagues Hawley Almstedt, Silvie Grote, Todd Shoepe, Sarah Strand and Stephanie Perez. It combined aerobic and resistance training over 13 weeks of supervised exercise at LMU’s Applied Physiology Lab. Cancer survivors came three times a week for one-hour sessions.

About 20 undergraduates in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering assisted throughout in designing and administering the research study.  Students helped write the survey and canvassed nearby cities to find willing cancer survivors. Students also assisted in monitoring the participants and recording data.

The pool of participants was multi-ethnic and that, too, is significant, said Tarleton. “That way, it becomes more useful to the community,” she said. “By making the study more diverse, ethnically, racially and economically, the statistics may be less dynamic, but the study becomes more meaningful.”   

The exercise regimen included a 15-minute aerobic walk or run at 35 percent to 85 percent heart rate reserve; 30 minutes of whole-body circuit training; and 15 minutes of flexibility and core training.

One cancer survivor from the study said a recent experience hiking to Vernal Falls in Yosemite, which includes a steep elevation gain over a short distance, underscored the impact of the research. “I know I couldn't have done this hike six months earlier without the benefit of last semester's training,” the participant said.

Tarleton said that the next step is to find funding to lengthen the study and expand the participant pool. “We are hoping to extend the LMU reach beyond our closest neighbors,” Tarleton said. “We want to let the greater community know that we’re here, and we have a free service that is designed to help cancer survivors re-engage in their lives and their communities.”