Exercise & Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Oncology

What we know and what we need to explore

Key Points:

  • Exercise improves mood and mental quality of life
  • Exercising with others and sport participation helped some patients feel more comfortable and confident regarding their body image
  • Patients who are physically active during treatment are more likely to remain active
  • Discuss your plans with your doctor, but exercise during cancer is safe
  • More research about exercise in the AYA population is needed


Society often presents the idea that cancer occurs on two ends of the life spectrum, young children and older adults. However, we all know cancer doesn’t care about how old you are. The field of Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Oncology is the study of cancer in individuals between the ages of 15-39. This group of patients face unique challenges in their cancer journey as they simultaneously navigate developing social relationships, building a career and starting a family. Studies have demonstrated some of the primary areas of interest for this group include body image, physical changes, sexuality, increasing strength and reintegration into sports1. Although physical activity and body image is important to the AYA population, most of the research in the field of Exercise Oncology has been dedicated to older patients. Below, we will discuss some of the studies that have been done.

One review of 11 total studies suggested that exercise in AYA patients improves mood, mental quality of life, activity level after the intervention, as well as weight loss². This goes a long with a lot of what we have learned in older patients.

Another review identified 6 studies that comprised a total of 135 patients between the ages of 15 and 25 with a physical activity intervention during or after cancer treatment. There were a lot of differences between the six studies, which makes it difficult to make definitive conclusions. This review demonstrates that integration of physical activity is safe and emphasizes that we need to increase the research for AYA patients to have a better understanding of the potential benefits4.

Interviews were completed before and after a 6 week health and wellness program for AYA patients5. Many felt this was helpful for their self-esteem and motivation, including a 32 year old woman with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma who shared the following, “I have definitely gained more strength and an increased sense of physical wellbeing. I’m completely bald now but my strength is not in my hair.”

Several elite athletes have returned to their sport after cancer treatment by working closely with their oncologist, physical therapist and even sports psychologist. Athletes know their body and are often able to recognize their limitations, while also remaining active and strong throughout their treatment6.

Although studies have been promising and suggest that AYA patients benefit from exercise, there definitely needs to be more studies to prove this. This should be an area of focus in the future of Exercise Oncology and something that Athletes Fighting Cancer is committed to.

If you are interested in sharing your experience to further this research, please let the team know by emailing [email protected] 


  1. Barakat LP, Galtieri LR, Szalda D, Schwartz LA. Assessing the psychosocial needs and program preferences of adolescents and young adults with cancer. Support Care Cancer. 2016;24(2):823-832.
  2. Braam KI, van der Torre P, Takken T, Veening MA, van Dulmen-den Broeder E, Kaspers GJ. Physical exercise training interventions for children and young adults during and after treatment for childhood cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;3(3):CD008796. Published 2016 Mar 31.
  3. Zhi X, Cheng ASK et al. Effects of exercise intervention on quality of life in adolescents and young adult cancer patients and survivors: a meta-analysis. Integrative Cancer Therapies(2019). 18:1-9.
  4. Munsie C, Ebert J, Joske D, Ackland T. The benefit of physical activity in adolescent and young adult cancer patients during and after treatment: a systematic review. J Adolesc Young Adult Oncol. 2019;8:512-524.
  5. Adamsen L, Andersen C, Midtgaard J, Møller T, Quist M, Rørth M. Struggling with cancer and treatment: young athletes recapture body control and identity through exercise: qualitative findings from a supervised group exercise program in cancer patients of mixed gender undergoing chemotherapy. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2009;19(1):55-66.
  6. Savage PD, Dittus K, Lakoski SG. Fitness during breast cancer treatment and recovery in an athlete. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2016;48(10):1893-1897.