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Obesity, inactivity as common among cancer survivors as rest of Canadians, study shows

EdmontonNew research supported by the Canadian Cancer Society shows that many cancer survivors in Canada are overweight and inactive, which could put them at risk for health problems, including their cancer returning.

These findings tell us that we need to look at ways to better support cancer survivors to become more active and to maintain a healthy body weight, says Dr. Kerry Courneya, professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and affiliated scientist with the Centre for Behavioural Research and Program Evaluation. We know that physical inactivity and obesity are risk factors for developing cancer. These are also risk factors for the recurrence of cancer. Lifestyle is just as important after diagnosis.

"A cancer diagnosis can have a profound effect on people and their families, says Heather Chappell, senior manager of Cancer Control Policy at the Canadian Cancer Society. These important findings will help in developing ways to provide effective support for cancer patients. Even small changes can make a difference for patients, such as including a moderate amount of exercise and healthy eating in their treatment and recovery period, if and when they can.

Dr. Courneya and his research team analyzed data from a 2005 Community Health Survey of more than 114,000 adults. The studythe first of its kind in Canadapublished today in the journal Cancer, showed that:

  • only about 21 per cent of cancer survivors, and about 25 per cent of Canadians in general, are physically active;

  • about 18 per cent of cancer survivors report being obese, compared to about 15 per cent of Canadians in general;

  • an additional 34 per cent of cancer survivors report being overweight, compared to about 37 per cent of Canadians in general;

  • 53 per cent of all the cancer survivors, or one in two survivors, were overweight or obese, compared to 52 per cent of Canadians in general;

  • male cancer survivors were more likely to be overweight or obese than female cancer survivors (62 per cent versus 47 per cent);

  • the lowest levels of physical activity were among colorectal cancer survivors, breast cancer survivors and female melanoma survivors;

  • the highest levels of physical activity and lowest levels of obesity were among prostate cancer survivors; skin cancer survivors were also more active than the general population.

The research findings show the percentage of cancer patients who are overweight and inactive is comparable to the rest of Canadians.

Its a challenge for all of us to eat properly and exercise, and it may be especially challenging for cancer survivors who have been through difficult treatments and may have lingering health issues, says Dr. Courneya. But eating well and exercising are two of the best things we can do for our mental and physical health, even in trying times. Rest is rarely the best medicine for any health condition.

Survey questions asked details about survivors levels, types and quantity of physical activity during the previous three months, such as walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, skating, dancing and playing sports. From the answers obtained, researchers were able to determineand labelhow physically active the participant was during treatment and recovery.

Physically active is defined as the equivalent of one hour of walking a day, moderately active is equal to 30 minutes a day and inactive is less than 30 minutes of walking a day.

Obese is defined as having a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or higher. (BMI is a persons weight in kilograms divided by their height in metres squared). Overweight is defined as having a BMI of 25 or higher.

The Canadian Cancer Society has funded previous research showing that exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women and can improve the quality of life of prostate cancer patients. The Society also encourages Canadians to adopt a healthy lifestyle to minimize their risk of cancer, including eating well and maintaining a healthy body weight. These steps may also prevent the disease from coming back. These findings are important for all Canadians, says Ms. Chappell.


Contact: Isabela C. Varela
University of Alberta

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