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Diet, Fitness Coaches Help Cancer Survivors

Exercise and Diet Counseling Improves Physical Abilities of Older Cancer Survivors

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

May 12, 2009 -- Coaching and coaxing elderly cancer survivors about their need to exercise and eat healthy foods can significantly reduce their rate of physical decline, a new study indicates.

Researchers from Duke University Medical Center and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center signed up 641 elderly cancer survivors who were overweight or obese and had been treated for breast, colorectal, or prostate cancer but had not experienced a recurrence for five years or more.

Wendy Demark-Wahnefriend, MD, PhD, of M.D. Anderson's department of behavioral science, says 319 were assigned to an intervention group that received 15 telephone sessions with a health counselor for a year.

A comparison group of 322 people was told to go about normal routines, and that they'd get the counseling after a year.

Those getting the coaching and counseling for home-based exercising and dieting had much higher levels of physical function after a year, reporting more ease in going up and down stairs, running a short distance, or stepping on and off a stool.

The researchers used scoring systems to assess function, assigning points on the basis of participants' reported ability to perform such physical tasks.

Those who received regular calls worked toward establishing several daily goals, including performing lower body strength exercises, walking a half hour, and using portion-control plates, cups, and bowls; they were also were reminded to eat more fruits and vegetables.

They also received a personally tailored workbook and a series of quarterly newsletters, designed to motivate them to maintain good exercise and eating habits.

It worked, says Miriam Morey, PhD, a researcher in the Duke Center for Aging and at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

"Our study showed that by reaching out to older cancer survivors in their homes and giving them tools to improve diet and exercise, we were able to reduce the rate of functional decline," she says in a news release.

The elderly people who received personalized counseling had an average decrease in the physical function scale of two points, indicating their decreases in physical function were "not even clinically detectable" after a year. But those in the comparison group had decreases of almost five points.

Morey, lead investigator of the study, tells WebMD that counselors were trained to encourage and support positive behaviors.

"I actually believe that the continuing support via counseling is what helped the patients," Morey tells WebMD. "If you think about it, everyone pretty much knows what they should be doing. They know they should exercise, eat more fruits and vegetables and less fat. The difficulty lies in actually doing it."

But having a counselor helps keep people on track, she says. "The wonderful thing about this intervention is that it would be accessible to anyone with a phone," says Morey, and people wouldn't have to join a gym to slow down the rate of physical decline.

The study is published in the May 13 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

SOURCES: News release, Duke University Medical Center. Morey, M. The Journal of the American Medical Association, May 13, 2009; vol 301. Miriam C. Morey, PhD, Duke University Medical Center and Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

©2009 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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