Mishra, S.I., Scherer, R.W., Geigle, P.M., Berlanstein, D.R., Topaloglu, O., Gotay, C.C., & Snyder, C. (2012). Exercise interventions on health-related quality of life for cancer survivors. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 8, CD007566.

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To conduct a meta-analysis of the effectiveness of exercise interventions on health-related quality of life (HRQoL) and domains (e.g., physical, psychological, economic, social, and spiritual well-being) of HRQoL among adult cancer survivors posttreatment.

Search Strategy

Databases searched were Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), PubMed, MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, PsycINFO, PEDro, LILACS, SIGLE, SPORTDiscus, OTSeeker, Sociological Abstracts, Web of Science, and Scopus.

Search keywords (selected from appendices) were exercise, quality of life, health-related quality of life, pain, and cancer.

Studies were included in the review if they

  • Were randomized, controlled trials (RCTs) and controlled clinical trials that compared exercise interventions with either usual care or no exercise
  • Evaluated the impact on overall HRQoL or at least one domain of HRQoL in cancer survivors posttreatment
  • Reported cancer survivors diagnosed as adults (18 years and older).

Studies were excluded if they reported patients with terminal cancer or in hospice care who were receiving active treatment for primary or recurrent cancer.

Literature Evaluated

A total of 1,795 relevant references were retrieved.  A total of 1,636 articles were excluded based on the title and abstract.  After further review of the abstract, 82 were excluded because they did not meet the inclusion criteria. An additional 13 were excluded from qualitative synthesis because they were ongoing studies.

Sample Characteristics

  • The review included a final number of 40 trials in qualitative synthesis and 33 in quantitative (meta-analysis of findings).
  • A total of 3,694 participants were randomized to an exercise (n = 1,927) or control (n = 1,764) group.
  • Of the 40 studies, 38 were RCTs, three used variation of an RCT, and two used a quasiexperimental design. All but four trials were randomized to an exercise group or a control group.
  • Studies included various cancer types, including breast, colorectal, head and neck, and others. Twenty-two trials were focused on breast cancer only.
  • The time frame included 30 studies completed with treatment and 10 completed during and after cancer treatment. Only posttreatment data were included. The range of treatment time was immediate completion of treatment to up to 15 years after completion.
  • The majority of trials reported females only; 15 used mixed gender samples.
  • Participant age ranged from 39 to 68 years.
  • Of those reporting socioeconomic status, the majority of participants had at least a high school education.
  • Fifteen trials reported past exercise use, with types of exercise including strength and resistance training, walking, cycling, yoga, qigong, and tai chi.

Phase of Care and Clinical Applications

The review has clinical applicability for late effects and survivorship.


Exercise had a positive effect on change in HRQoL scores at 12 weeks and six months of evaluation, and it improved cancer-specific HRQoL in breast cancer concerns. The effect on HRQoL remained after exclusion of patients who were receiving active treatment. For cancer-specific HRQoL, there was significant improvement in exercise groups compared with controls for breast cancer concerns at baseline to 12 weeks and six months. There was a significant decrease in anxiety in the exercise group compared to controls at 12 weeks only (standardized mean difference [SMD] = -0.26; 95% confidence interval [CI] [-0.44, -0.07]) but not in breast cancer-only analysis. There was a high risk of bias in most of these studies, and when these were removed, the results were not significant. Significant differences were noted in body image at follow-up (12 weeks to six months and beyond) using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Significant change scores were noted for cancers other than breast for improving depression scores (SMD = -0.46; 95% CI [-0.72, -0.19]). Significant improvements were noted in emotional well being (12 weeks) and fatigue (12 weeks and 6 months) (SMD = -0.42; 95% CI [-0.83, -0.02]). No effects after six months were seen for fatigue, and effects were not significant when studies involving patients during treatment were excluded. Improvement in pain using follow-up scores (12 weeks) was seen (SMD = -0.29; 95% CI [-0.55, -0.04]), but this was from a single trial. Positive effects were noted in sexuality scores at six months and sleep disturbance at 12 weeks (sleep SMD = -0.46; 95% CI [-0.72, -0.20]). Significant improvements were noted in change scores for social functioning (12 weeks and six months). No significant changes were noted in cognitive function, general health perspective, role function, and spirituality in exercise trials.


Exercise interventions showed beneficial effects on HRQoL and some HRQoL domains, including breast cancer concerns, body image, emotional well being, sexuality, sleep disturbances, social functioning, anxiety, fatigue, and pain at various follow-up time points.


  • Studies included used exercise programs of various types, intensity levels, and lengths.
  • Significant effects found tended to be in subgroups of patients or at only one time point, limiting the confidence in observed effects.
  • Measures of HRQoL varied, creating heterogeneity among the studies in how HRQoL was quantified.
  • There was a high risk of bias in the trials reviewed. In many cases, no significant effects were seen when analyzing changes in symptoms from baseline to follow-up time points, and significant findings were seen in comparing only follow-up scores between various comparison groups. Results should be used with caution for these reasons.

Nursing Implications

Findings supported the general benefit of exercise for patients with cancer; however, there is further need for research to verify the positive effects of exercise on symptoms of cancer in various patient groups and at various phases of cancer care. These future research studies should determine how to produce larger effect sizes over time and delineate predictors of that effect, such as type of exercise, intensity of the program, timing, and type of cancer and treatment in order to maximize the effect on QoL. It will be important to note that certain questionnaires can affect the outcomes, and consistency would improve this body of research.

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