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Which exercise prescriptions improve quality of life and physical function in patients with cancer during and following treatment? A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials


Objective Certain exercise prescriptions for patients with cancer may improve self-reported quality of life (QoL) and self-reported physical function (PF). We investigated the effects of exercise on QoL and PF in patients with cancer and studied differences in effects between different intervention-related and exercise-related characteristics.

Design We searched four electronic databases to identify randomised controlled trials investigating exercise effects on QoL and PF in patients with cancer. Pooled effects (Hedges’ g) were calculated using Comprehensive Meta-Analysis software. Subgroup analyses were conducted based on intervention dimensions, including timing, duration and delivery mode, and exercise dimensions, including frequency, intensity, type and time (FITT factors).

Results We included 74 exercise arms. Patients who were randomised to exercise interventions had significantly improved QoL (g=0.15, 95% CI (0.10 to 0.20), n=67 exercise arms) and PF (g=0.21, 95% CI (0.15 to 0.27), n=59 exercise arms) compared with patients in control groups. We found a significant between-group difference for exercise delivery mode, with significant beneficial effects for supervised exercise interventions (g=0.20, 95% CI (0.14 to 0.26) for QoL and g=0.27, 95% CI (0.20 to 0.33) for PF), but not for unsupervised interventions (g=0.04, 95% CI (−0.06 to 0.13) for QoL and g=0.09, 95% CI (−0.01 to 0.19) for PF). No statistically significant differences in intervention effects were found for variations in intervention timing, duration or exercise FITT factors. Unsupervised exercise with higher weekly energy expenditure was more effective than unsupervised exercise with lower energy expenditure (z=2.34, p=0.02).

Conclusions Exercise interventions, especially when supervised, have statistically significant and small clinical benefit on self-reported QoL and PF in patients with cancer. Unsupervised exercise intervention effects on PF were larger when prescribed at a higher weekly energy expenditure.

  • neoplasm
  • quality of life
  • physical activity
  • exercise
  • meta-analysis

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