Exercise After Breast Cancer Reduces Health Care Costs

3 min read

April 27, 2023 – Exercise programs that are tailored to patients with breast cancer are linked to improvements in quality of life, but they may also reduce health care costs, according to a new study. 

The findings come from a study that's slated to be presented at the 24th American Society of Breast Surgeons Annual Meeting on April 28 and highlighted in a pre-meeting news briefing.

In the study,  more than 240 patients with early-stage breast cancer were given either a 12-week exercise program or standard care. The exercise group completed a 12-week personalized exercise program consistent with the American College of Sports Medicine guidelines for cancer survivors. This included 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise such as walking or recumbent cycling each week, alongside two or three 60-minute full-body workouts with free weights or exercise stretch bands.

The intervention was associated with significant improvements in quality of life, and these improvements were linked to a significant reduction in patients needing to use health care. Specifically, the researchers found that emergency department visits were reduced by 33.2%, hospital outpatient visits cut by 21.5%, and private office visits decreased by 41.8%. 

“All dimensions of health-related quality of life were positively impacted by exercise,” said study presenter Karen Wonders, PhD, founder and CEO of Maple Tree Cancer Alliance in Dayton, OH, and a professor of exercise physiology at Wright State University in Fairborn, OH. 

She suggested that exercise could be used to “decrease health care costs among patients with early-stage breast cancer.”

These findings demonstrate the benefit of exercise programs to reduce complications and emergency room visits, said Sarah L. Blair, MD, professor and vice chair of the Department of Surgery at UC San Diego Health in San Diego, CA, when asked to comment on the findings. 

“Many of my patients ask me what they can do to improve their outcomes,” she said. “Now I can … recommend they add moderate exercise to their routine, with real tangible benefits.”

A second study also presented at the meeting examined the impact of interventions to improve the health of breast cancer patients before they had surgery, also known as pre-habilitation.

These women had a personalized exercise program plus nutritional support and counselling while they had chemotherapy before surgery, and they showed improvements in exercise capacity and quality of life, compared to those who had standard care. 

The pre-habilitation and standard care groups were similar in terms of their physical capacity at the start of the study.

Those doing the exercise intervention maintained their function, as measured on how far they could walk in 6 minutes, after both chemotherapy and surgery, and substantially increased their overall activity, to guideline-recommended levels.

In contrast, standard care groups showed a reduction in how far they could walk in 6 minutes, and their increase in activity was modest.

Although both groups had more fatigue after their chemotherapy, patients in the pre-habilitation group bounced back much more than those receiving standard care, and they reported better quality of life.

“The impact of our pre-habilitation was quite positive” with no unwanted effects reported, said study author Frances Wright, MD, an affiliate scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, ON, Canada.

While acknowledging the need for a larger trial to confirm the results, she said their program will be offered virtually to women throughout Canada via a nonprofit organization.