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The benefits of exercise are so far-reaching — from physical fitness and cognitive function to psychological health — it’s hard to oversell them. Recently, in fact, researchers have confirmed that regular exercise may have yet another lifesaving superpower: enhancing cancer recovery.

In a pilot study led by the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Laura Bilek, PhD, and conducted by the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute, researchers discovered that regular physical activity helped rebuild patients’ immune systems after chemotherapy.

The team enlisted post-chemo cancer survivors to start a 12-week exercise program that included aerobic training and weightlifting three times per week. Then the researchers compared the participants’ T-cells (which fight infections and cancer) with blood samples taken before the exercise program began. Blood samples showed that seven out of nine volunteers saw significantly improved T-cell function after the 12-week period.

The study reinforces previous research on exercise’s disease-fighting properties. “Numerous studies have associated higher activity levels with improved outcomes for cancer patients and a decrease in symptoms associated with cancer, like fatigue and pain,” Bilek says. “Data has even shown that for some cancer types, such as breast and colon, more-active people appear to have a decreased chance of cancer recurrence and live longer.”

Although it’s not yet known if certain types of exercise are more effective than others, Bilek recommends a combination of strength training, such as working out with weights, resistance bands or body-weight training, and moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like swimming, jogging on a treadmill, or even gardening or walking around the block. Aim for a total of two-and-a-half hours per week. What’s most important about the type of exercise you choose, Bilek notes, is that it’s something you are motivated to start and continue long term.

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