Campus News

Exercise is medicine for cancer survivors, Perry lecturer says

Kathryn Schmitz, professor of public health sciences at Penn State, speaks at the School of Public Health and Health Professions’ 31st J. Warren Perry Lecture.

Kathryn Schmitz, professor of public health sciences at Penn State, speaks at the School of Public Health and Health Professions’ 31st J. Warren Perry Lecture. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

By DAVID J. HILL

Published November 15, 2019

Kathryn Schmitz.
“The body is meant to be in motion and will do better — we will do better — if we are in motion, even if we are very sick with cancer.”
Kathryn Schmitz, professor of public health sciences
Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine

Kathryn Schmitz calls them “exercise snacks.” They’re quick, easy bouts of exercise designed to show that it’s possible to squeeze in physical activity, regardless of your location, footwear choice, schedule or ability.

So, before diving into her talk on Tuesday as the School of Public Health and Health Professions’ 31st J. Warren Perry Lecture speaker, Schmitz led a group of more than 100 UB students, faculty and staff attending the lecture in 10 squats.

Over the next hour, Schmitz gave the audience plenty more to snack on as she discussed why “exercise is medicine in oncology,” and why more needs to be done to change the way clinicians and other health professionals view physical activity for people who have been diagnosed with cancer and those in remission.

“The body is meant to be in motion and will do better — we will do better — if we are in motion, even if we are very sick with cancer,” said Schmitz, a professor of public health sciences at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine, whose professional mission is to answer the question of how to increase the awareness and effectiveness of exercise oncology.

Schmitz is the immediate past president of the American College of Sports Medicine. Last year, she chaired the International Multidisciplinary ACSM Roundtable on Exercise and Cancer Prevention and Control.

Schmitz has been a leader in the Moving Through Cancer program of ACSM’s Exercise is Medicine initiative. Moving Through Cancer has developed a searchable registry to help health care providers, exercise professionals and patients find appropriately trained exercise professionals and programs in their communities.

“Our mission is that by 2029, exercise will be standard practice within oncology,” Schmitz said. Exercise, she added, includes both resistance training and aerobic activity.

Kathryn Schmitz demonstrates what she means by "exercise snacks" by doing some squats.

Kathryn Schmitz demonstrates what she calls "exercise snacks" by doing some squats. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

The Perry Lecture audiences, including Jean Wactawski-Wende, participates in a "snack" of 10 squats.

Jean Wactawski-Wende (left in gray jacket), dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions, watches as some lecture-goers take an "exercise snack." Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

The empirical evidence for the benefits of physical activity in cancer survivors, as well as people who haven’t yet been diagnosed, is increasingly overwhelming, said Schmitz, who was lead author on the ACSM Roundtable on Exercise for Cancer Survivors, which in 2010 published guidance for exercise testing and prescription for cancer survivors.

However, public health experts are struggling to find a way to best communicate what turns out to be a complex answer. That’s because doing aerobic exercise 20 minutes a day two times a week is good for some cancer outcomes, such as fatigue, but other outcomes may be improved by resistance training.

It’s not as simple as encouraging cancer survivors to exercise a set amount of time each week. “It depends on the outcome,” Schmitz said. “It’s just much more complicated than that because exercise, it turns out, is like a medicine, and needs to be dosed like one.”

She shared the story of Kikkan Randall, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer three months after winning gold for the U.S. in cross country skiing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

Randall had to go looking for doctors who would allow her to continue to be active during her treatment.

“I want that to be an exception,” Schmitz said. “It’s time for a paradigm shift. Exercise is indeed medicine for people living with and beyond cancer.

“Exercise may not make the cancer go away, but it will put the patient back in control.”