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Will NASA Exercise Programmes Astronomically Improve Chemotherapy Patient Fitness?

Astronauts experience physical stress while in space and have a rigorous training programme prior, during, and after their expedition. Scientists from Exercise Oncology Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York city, New York, USA, have now identified that very similar symptoms to astronauts are experienced in patients undergoing chemotherapy; however, these patients are told to rest: the exact opposite of astronauts. These scientists now believe that patients would benefit from pre-chemotherapy exercise programmes to prepare them on their quest to health.

The team from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center have been examining whether the addition of basic exercise at home can reduce the side effects associated with chemotherapy. Patients are provided with treadmills and video call software and encouraged to exercise before, during, and after treatment, just as astronauts do for their missions.

“It was surprising when we looked at similarities between astronauts during spaceflight and cancer patients during treatment. Both have a decrease in muscle mass, and they have bone demineralisation and changes in heart function,” commented senior author of the paper Jessica Scott, an exercise physiology researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Common side effects of chemotherapy are not limited to a physical nature; patients can also experience cognitive differences, of which are termed as ‘chemo brain’. Interestingly, astronauts also experience similar symptoms, including a reduced ability to concentrate and increased forgetfulness, otherwise known as ‘space fog’.

An astronaut’s baseline cardiorespiratory fitness is measured prior and after their time in space, and exercise programmes are used to ensure that the fitness level is returned to that before the spaceflight. The team of researchers from the Exercise Oncology Service believe that exercise programmes that echo those of NASA should be integrated into chemotherapy treatment protocols to improve the cardiorespiratory fitness of the 90% of patients who now survive early-stage cancer.

Stating that many patients are now not actually dying from the cancer itself but the associated side-effects of the treatment, Scott concluded: “That’s why it’s very timely that we start thinking about how to utilise NASA’s tactics to manage some of these long-term side effects of cancer treatments.”