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ACS Research Highlights

Clinical Trial to Keep Colorectal Cancer Survivors Exercising

Heather J. Leach, PhD, an ACS research grantee is leading a clinical trial to compare physical activity programs for colorectal cancer survivors. 

The Challenge

Studies have shown that people who exercise regularly after being diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer have a better quality of life and may live longer than those who don’t exercise. However, many colorectal cancer survivors don't get enough physical activity to enjoy these benefits.

The Research

Does working out with the social support of a group make colorectal cancer survivors more likely to keep exercising? That's one of the things Heather J. Leach, PhD, an American Cancer Society grantee from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, wants to find out. She’s leading a clinical trial to compare two 12-week physical activity programs. Both programs are led by an exercise specialist trained to work with cancer survivors. One involves working out with a group and the other involves individual, supervised physical activity, like personal training. Leach’s goal is to find out which program is more likely to help colorectal cancer survivors continue to exercise when the programs end.

The study’s participants have been diagnosed with stage II or III colorectal cancer and had surgery within the past 3 to 24 months. Half have one-on-one sessions with the exercise specialist. The other half exercise in groups of 5 to 15 with the leader using behavior change strategies that focus on how members of the group interact with each other. The goal is to encourage bonding with others in the group because such connection has been shown to help people stick with an exercise routine over time. All participants keep a diary to help give information during follow-up visits.

close up portrait of Heather J. Leach, PhD from Colorado State University in Fort Collins

At follow-up visits researchers check the amount of exercise being done, ask each person how much he or she is exercising and ask about the quality of life and group connection. They also test each survivor’s aerobic fitness and muscle strength. Leach’s team is also considering whether someone lives near parks, sidewalks, or fitness centers. The area where a person lives may be especially key for colorectal cancer survivors who have more than one physical limitation.

Why It Matters

Insights from this research will help identify ways to encourage life-long exercise in colorectal cancer survivors. The results could even affect physical activity programs provided as part of supportive care for all cancer survivors.