Urbana, Ill. Moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise provides multiple benefits for cardiac and pulmonary health, but this type of movement may not be an option for some patient populations. Cancer Center at Illinois scientist Neha Gothe is exploring the benefits of non-traditional forms of movement, specifically yoga, for cancer survivors.

Gothe originally studied psychology, but pursued studies that combined behavioral psychology and kinesiology with cancer science, inspired by her loved ones’ experiences with the disease. Gothe is now the director of the Exercise Psychology Lab at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she leads her team in researching the biological, psychological, and social impacts of movement and exercise.


“I want to continue my research studies and extend it to a population that really needs it. To that end, I am studying how physical activity can help cancer survivors after diagnosis, after they have returned home and are trying to resume a normal routine” Gothe said. 

To answer this question, Gothe, also an assistant professor of Kinesiology and Community Health, is currently recruiting patients for “SAY Exercise,” a 5-year randomized trial funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Participants will perform six months of yoga, aerobic exercise, or strength training and complete MRI brain scans before and after the study.

Image of Gothe lab team members

Above: Gothe’s lab members.

These MRI scans will be taken while participants perform memory tasks, allowing Gothe and her lab to observe and analyze changes in brain structure and cognitive function, particularly in the hippocampus and frontal lobe. Behavioral and cognitive assessments will also measure attention, processing, and multitasking to monitor changes over time. 




“There’s a big ‘black box’ of cancer-related cognitive impairment (CRCI), also known as chemo fog, and we don’t yet know how to manage it. Studies report that many patients suffer from CRCI, and we want to see how exercise may affect or improve these symptoms,” Gothe said. 

Of particular interest to Gothe is the “mind-body” factor that is a core element to the practice of yoga. That is, yoga and other non-traditional forms of exercise such as Tai Chi move the body, improving flexibility, mobility, and strength, but also emphasizes mindfulness and being present in the moment during exercise.

Image of Gothe lab members in yoga studio

Gothe is also interested in health disparity issues, especially as they apply to aging populations. In a previous study, Gothe applied her expertise to examining the differences in exercise participation in African American populations, finding that environmental factors such as poor sidewalk maintenance and unsafe communities posed challenges to regular activity. 

“One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to exercise. There are different sets of challenges for each individual, so we should explore different options and examine the evidence to support these substitutes for traditional exercise,” Gothe said. 

– Written by the CCIL Communications Team

This research is funded by National Institute on Aging, UIUC Campus Research Board, and Center for Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Read about the CDC’s guidelines for physical activity for adults.