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Highlighting the adolescent and young adult cancer population

Note: This post is written by the team of The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise) at Penn State College of Medicine as part of a first-person blog about their work. Learn more about the group here.

Have you heard of adolescent and young adult (AYA) patients? They are a population of cancer patients that deserves more attention and for who physical activity programs would be very beneficial.

Who are they and why is exercise beneficial for them?

There are 77,000 new AYA patients diagnosed with cancer in the United States every year. Among them, a majority will experience the first signs of negative effects of their treatments and disease only a few weeks or months after their diagnosis. The main impacts of the treatments and disease on their health are depression, anxiety, low quality of life, pain, fatigue and physical dysfunction, to only cite a few. Because AYAs are a specific population, they have largely unmet clinical needs because of their age-specific needs (e.g., family and peer engagement) and their specific physiological and psychosocial needs, which differ from their healthy peers. Exercise has the power to help them and make them stronger to live a better life! Further, exercise can help them be more autonomous and achieve their professional and personal goals.

Who can exercise and under what conditions?

Everyone should be physically active, even if you have cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends for teenagers to engage in at least 60 min of exercise at moderate-to-vigorous aerobic intensity per day, which represents approximately a score of 14 on a scale of 20 for perceived effort. For young adults, the WHO recommends engaging in at least 150 to 300 min of exercise at moderate-to-vigorous aerobic intensity per week. The American College of Sports Medicine is clear about the benefits of exercise in cancer patients and survivors. By doing exercise, AYAs experience benefits on their physical and psychological health, immune and inflammatory function, musculoskeletal function, cardiac function, and reduce their risk of morbidity and mortality.

Whether you are a teenager or a young adult, it is important to limit the time during which you are sedentary. Exercise is key to your success.

Why does sedentary behavior need to be avoided in this cancer population?

The WHO indicates that sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, increase risks of cancer, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, and increase depression and anxiety. As observed in the general population, AYA cancer patients often do not meet physical activity recommendations both during and after treatments, even though physical activity is very beneficial for them. There are many factors that can be taken into account to explain this. Some patients are tired, others are in pain or just don’t want to exercise. There are also patients who do not know what it is safe to do and need a personalized follow-up. Exercise physiologists with cancer training or Certified Cancer Exercise trainers can help AYA cancer patients be more active.

Do you need more convincing?

Here’s a recent Instagram post by Thomas Pesquet (@thom_astro), a French astronaut who will command the International Space Station in October 2021. He explains why it is important to be active in the space and why we all need to stay active every day.

“Here is the Space Station exercise bicycle, one of three ways to exercise in space (we also have a treadmill and a “weight”-lifting machine). […] In space, we experience a type of accelerated ageing and exercise is even more important than on Earth, because we use our muscles less – on Earth your body constantly compensates for gravity as it keeps balancing to stay upright – unless you are lying down of course. Variation, like everything in life, is key, and cycling is a good non-impact way of keeping fit. […] One thing everybody agrees on: exercise to stay fit and healthy!”

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