Lifting weights can improve survival of lung cancer patients

Weightlifting is not just for making the body look more muscular. By increasing a person’s muscle mass, strength training prevents the onset of sarcopenia and makes it easier to treat lung cancer.

Sarcopenia is a medical condition characterized by the loss of skeletal muscle mass. Also called muscle wasting, it is a natural part of the aging process.

Japanese researchers discovered a close link between sarcopenia and the effectiveness of new therapies for advanced cases of non-small cell lung cancer. Patients with sarcopenia did not respond very well to cancer treatments that used programmed death-1 inhibitors.

Programmed death-1 inhibitors are a new class of drugs developed to fight cancer. Instead of directly killing tumor cells – as well as healthy cells – like chemotherapy, the inhibitors work with the immune system of the patient.

The human body has methods of dealing with cancer cells. Programmed death-1 inhibitors increase the ability of the immune system to seek out and destroy these cells. (Related: Elderly people should try weightlifting to prevent frailty, health experts recommend.)

Muscle wasting hampers the effective treatment of advanced cancers

Programmed death-1 inhibitors are seeing more use in therapies for non-small cell lung cancer and other types of cancer. However, their effectiveness depends on the state of the patient’s immune system.

The stronger the patient’s immune system, the better his response to programmed death-1 inhibitors. On the other hand, an already compromised immune system won’t get much benefit from the treatment.


Even with the help of the new treatment, only a small percentage of non-small cell lung cancer patients survive the advanced stage of the disease for more than a year. Even fewer report remissions in the growth and spread of their deadly tumor.

“Sarcopenia is a well-known risk factor associated with poor outcomes for several cancer types,” said Osaka University researcher Takayuki Shiroyama, the lead author of the study. “Because muscle degradation is associated with a dysregulated immune response, we wanted to investigate how, in lung cancer patients, sarcopenia impacts the efficacy of PD-1 inhibitor therapy.”

To achieve this, Shiroyama and his colleagues looked up the medical records of patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer. They selected only those who had undergone evaluation for sarcopenia prior to treatment. Of the 42 lung cancer patients they analyzed, 52.4 percent had sarcopenia.

Weightlifting can prevent sarcopenia and strengthen the immune system

The Osaka researchers discovered that patients with sarcopenia responded very poorly to programmed death-1 inhibitors. The cancerous tumors in the lungs of these people continued to progress despite the combined efforts of the patients’ immune system and the cancer treatment.

Their analysis showed that 38.1 percent of the participants with normal skeletal muscle mass remained in remission a year after getting the anti-cancer treatment. In contrast, only 10.1 percent of sarcopenia patients experienced a halt in tumor progression.

“Our findings suggest that baseline skeletal muscle mass has a substantial impact on PD-1 inhibitor efficacy,” said Shiroyama. “As such, skeletal muscle mass might be useful for predicting whether treatment is likely to be effective.”

Patients with advanced stages of cancer often suffer from muscle wasting. The results of the Osaka study implied that these people are not going to benefit from taking programmed death-1 inhibitors.

While researchers want to develop pharmaceutical drugs to boost skeletal muscle mass, there are natural methods of preventing the effects of sarcopenia and increasing the effectiveness of programmed death-1 inhibitors. Weightlifting is one such approach.

Older people will benefit from lifting weights and doing other types of resistance training. Weightlifting can help protect them from sarcopenia, and it may work for cancer patients as well.

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