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Exercise Can Relieve Fatigue in Cancer Patients

Cancer survivors have been told to rest, but new research says a workout could help boost their energy levels in the long term

--by Suzanne Boothby

The Gist

Fatigue is a common complaint for patients both during and after cancer treatment, but new research suggests even mild exercise can help combat it.

Cochrane researchers found that long periods of inactivity may lead to muscle wasting and increased tiredness in their updated review of an earlier findings published in The Cochrane Library. Balancing rest with physical activity may help to reduce overall exhaustion.

Fatigue can be a long-lasting side effect of cancer and cancer treatment, sometimes continuing for months or years. In some cases, people choose to delay or to not continue treatment because of it.

The American College of Sports Medicine says exercise is safe during and after most types of cancer treatment, and recommends survivors avoid inactivity.

The Expert Take

Staying active after cancer treatment is a growing recommendation from cancer experts.

"Cancer patients would be shocked if they knew just how much of a benefit physical activity could have on their recovery and long term health, in some cases reducing their chances of having to go through the grueling ordeal of treatment all over again," said Ciaran Devane, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support in a 2011 BBC Health article.

Lead researcher Fiona Cramp of the Faculty of Health & Life Sciences at the University of the West of England in Bristol, U.K. says this updated review provides a more precise conclusion, showing specifically that aerobic exercise, both during and after cancer treatment, can be beneficial.

"The evidence suggests that exercise may help reduce cancer-related fatigue and should therefore be considered as one component of a strategy for managing fatigue that may include a range of other interventions and education," she said.

Source and Method

The new review adds 28 more studies to those included in a 2008 review. Altogether, 56 studies involving a total of 4,068 people with cancer were included.

Half of the studies were carried out in people with breast cancer. Those with solid tumors benefited from aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, both during and after cancer treatment. Other forms of exercise, such as resistance training, did not significantly reduce fatigue.

The Takeaway

While more research is needed to fully understand how the frequency and duration of exercise affects those dealing with fatigue after cancer, researchers are clear that moderate activity can really help. 

Other Research

In June, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers found that physical activity—either mild or intense and before or after menopause—may reduce breast cancer risk, but substantial weight gain may negate these benefits.

A European investigation of the relationship between aerobic exercise and breast cancer found that women who did exercise had a higher quality of life than women who did not.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research

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