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Yoga: A medicinal exercise

According to a recent article published in Current Oncology, 69% of oncologists surveyed agreed that yoga is of interest for improving clinical care in adult cancer patients. One oncologist reported that “yoga is one of the best forms of exercise because each person participates to their level — thus everyone can participate — and little harm is done to the body.” [i]

As it turns out, this opinion is supported by quite a bit of scientific research. A majority of the research has focused on the benefits of yoga during cancer treatment and recovery in female breast cancer patients. Recent research has shown that yoga practice can improve various psychosocial measures when included in part of the routine for patients with various types of cancer.


Yoga & Breast Cancer

So what has the research so far taught us about yoga and breast cancer? The overall consensus of the research supports the use of yoga during treatment and into survivorship.

Across the board, it seems that there is a tendency for patients practicing yoga during active cancer treatment to have significantly decreased levels of anxiety, depression, perceived stress as well as psychological distress. Additionally, yoga may have a positive short-term effect on functional, social, and spiritual well-being [ii][iii].

A recent study published just last year found that breast cancer survivors had a significant increase in vitality immediately after the yoga treatment program. Interestingly, research is beginning to test the effects of yoga beyond the general health and well-being. Some research indicates that yoga may reduce inflammatory markers, IL-6 and TNF-alpha [iv]. Inflammatory markers in general indicate the presence of inflammation in the body, which has been linked to processes that contribute to the onset or progression of cancer [v].  Reductions in inflammatory markers result in improvements in overall health, and reduce risk of various health conditions such as atherosclerosis.

Similar benefits of yoga have been seen as well in those currently undergoing radiotherapy. Research suggests that yoga can have positive effects on physical as well as general health functioning during treatment for breast cancer [vi].


Yoga & Colon Cancer

So far, the research on the effects of exercise and colon cancer has shown little benefit. A review of the research found no significant effect of exercise on health-related quality of life or fatigue in patients with colon cancer. However, a separate study examining the effects of yoga in patients with colon cancer found that practicing yoga improved emotional well-being and reduced sleep disturbances. Additionally, yoga was found to reduce hospital anxiety and depression [vii].

The research at this point does not point to any profound benefit of yoga or exercise when it comes to health-related quality of life in the colon cancer population. However, there is some evidence in support of the mental health benefits that yoga provides. Though exercise in this population may not make a large impact on health, it certainly isn’t going to hurt, and may even help you feel a little better.


Yoga & Lung Cancer

Recent research has investigated the feasibility and results of yoga for stages I-IIIa non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients. The research found that yoga is an acceptable form of exercise for these patients, and resulted in decreased usage of sleep medications, decreased cortisol levels, improved patient’s mood, and increased mental and physical health [viii].

The authors report that the participants enjoyed the yoga classes, had an increased sense of calm and relaxation. Participants reported that yoga helped them to better handle everyday stress. Some participants even reported that the yoga breathing exercises helped them to relax during medical procedures and stressful situations at home.

It is important to note that even though research sometimes fails to find positive associations between yoga and specific health related outcomes, the skills learned in yoga may help to improve other aspects of life.


Yoga & Children: Is it Possible?

Though yoga is often thought of as an activity for adults, it is an activity that individuals of any age can participate in. A recent pilot study looked into feasibility of a yoga program for children and adolescents ages 7 – 18 undergoing intensive chemotherapy or haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT). The study found that not only was a yoga program possible, it was reasonable form of exercise for children undergoing treatment who may be too ill to participate in other types of exercise programs.

Interestingly, both children and parents noted slightly increased energy levels, decreased nausea and a reduction in the need for pain medication. Yoga practice in this population may also reduce anxiety and agitation, and improve both the child’s sleep and mood. The children found that yoga provided them the opportunity to relax and ‘escape’ from the hectic environment and stress of receiving treatment in the hospital [ix].


Yoga & Happiness

The consensus seems to be that yoga will help to relax your mind and your body regardless of where you are in your fight against cancer. Importantly, research has shown that a physically active lifestyle improves cancer survivors’ well-being, reduces their risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and recurrent cancers [x]. Try adding in yoga as an acceptable part of your physical activity schedule in order to gain the long-term benefits of exercise! Maintaining an active lifestyle will confer lifelong health benefits, and including yoga in your routine might just keep you happier, and a bit less stressed. However, as everyone’s situation is unique, be sure to check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program to ensure that it is safe for you.


Where to Yoga

With an increasing popularity of yoga across the US, there are more yoga centers than ever before. In order to get the most benefit out of practicing, it is best to attend a class with a certified yoga teacher who will help you correct and modify poses based on your needs. However, if you would like to try out a session at home before committing to a class, Do Yoga With Me is a great resource that has free beginner yoga classes available on-demand.


[i] McCall MC, Ward A, Heneghan C. Yoga in adult cancer: A pilot survey of attitudes and beliefs among oncologists. Current Oncology. 2015;22(1):13-19.
[ii] Cramer H, Lange S, Klose P, Paul A, Dobos G. Yoga for breast cancer patients and survivors: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Cancer. 2012;12(1):412.
[iii]Buffart L, van Uffelen J, Riphagen I, et al. Physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga in cancer patients and survivors, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Cancer. 2012;12(1):559.
[iv] Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Bennett JM, Andridge R, et al. Yoga’s impact on inflammation, mood, and fatigue in breast cancer survivors: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2014;32(10):1040-1049.
[v] Il’yasova D, Colbert LH, Harris TB, et al. Circulating levels of inflammatory markers and cancer risk in the health aging and body composition cohort. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention. 2005;14(10):2413-2418.
[vi] Chandwani KD, Perkins G, Nagendra HR, et al. Randomized, controlled trial of yoga in women with breast cancer undergoing radiotherapy. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2014;32(10):1058-1065.
[vii] Cramer H, Lauche R, Klose P, Dobos G, Langhorst J. A systematic review and meta-analysis of exercise interventions for colorectal cancer patients. European Journal of Cancer Care. 2014;23(1):3-14.
[viii] Fouladbakhsh JM, Davis JE, Yarandi HN. A pilot study of the feasibility and outcomes of yoga for lung cancer survivors. Oncol Nurs Forum. 2014;41(2):162-74.
[ix] Diorio C, Schechter T, Lee M, et al. A pilot study to evaluate the feasibility of individualized yoga for inpatient children receiving intensive chemotherapy. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2015;15(2):1-6.
[x] Long Parma D, Hughes DC, Ghosh S, et al. Effects of six months of yoga on inflammatory serum markers prognostic of recurrence risk in breast cancer survivors. SpringerPlus. 2015;4:143.
Katrina Trisko

Katrina Trisko graduated from Boston University in 2013 with a degree in Dietetics and is currently completing her dietetic internship program through Teachers College of Columbia University in NYC, where she has finished coursework for a Masters in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology.

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