Skip to Content


Diet, Exercise Program Benefits Older Survivors

CancerWise - January 2009

Long-term cancer survivors more than 65 years old who improved their exercise and diet habits in a year-long, home-based program saw significant improvements in their body weight and physical abilities.

Results of preliminary findings from the RENEW (Reach out to ENhance Wellness) trial were presented at the April 2008 American Association for Cancer Research conference by researchers from M. D. Anderson, Duke University Medical Center and Pennsylvania State University.

Significance of results

More and more people are surviving cancer, and two-thirds of cancer patients are alive five years after diagnosis. However, many cancer survivors are left with significant health issues and a decline in their physical abilities.

Older survivors are at an even greater risk. If their ability to function decreases, their independence may be threatened, resulting in increased health care costs.

Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D."After improving their diet and exercise over the period of a year, the survivors who participated in the program had much better ability to stand up, walk and function on their own," says Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., professor in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Behavioral Science. “These functions are critical in retaining independence. Also, participants enjoyed a better quality of life.”


"We know that when people are diagnosed with cancer they're at risk for other health problems and a decline in their physical abilities," Demark-Wahnefried says. "Research has shown people 65 years old and older may become debilitated permanently, increasing health care costs and taking a toll on family members."

Research methods

More than 20,000 letters were mailed to cancer survivors, and 1,208 people responded.

Survivors chosen to participate:

  • Were age 65 and older
  • Had survived breast, prostate or colorectal cancer for at least five years
  • Had no cancer recurrences
  • Were overweight or obese
  • Engaged in fewer than 150 minutes of physical activity weekly
  • Had no medical conditions prohibiting unsupervised exercise

After screening, 641 people were enrolled in the study.

The group was divided into:

  • 319 people who participated in the study
  • 322 people who were placed on a waiting list

Participants received 15 telephone-counseling sessions with a personal trainer throughout the year.

They worked toward daily goals, including:

  • Performing lower-body strength exercises
  • Walking 30 minutes
  • Limiting food portion sizes and saturated fats
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables

Primary results

At the end of the year, participants showed improvements in diet and exercise habits, as well as physical function and body weight. Most significant were notable strength improvements in their legs.

What’s next?

“The next step is to follow up with the participants to see if the effect is sustained,” Demark-Wahnefried says. “We also will attempt to replicate the results in the wait-listed group."

— Adapted by Dawn Dorsey from an M. D. Anderson news release

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center