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Exercise Improves Cancer Treatment by Combatting Fatigue

Exercise and Cancer Treatment

Fatigue is one of the most common and distressing side effects of cancer and its treatment. It is more than just feeling a little tired. Cancer-related fatigue interferes with the ability to do what we might think of as simple things – getting dressed, eating, etc.


There are many causes of cancer-related fatigue, which can be due to either the cancer itself, the treatment, or both. Cancer and cancer treatment can change protein and hormone levels that are linked to inflammatory processes which can cause or worsen fatigue. The treatment itself often causes the body to increase metabolism and use extra energy.

Beyond just the obvious interference with daily life activities, fatigue also could potentially interfere with the ability to continue to receive anti-cancer treatment. Obviously, that increases the risk of a poorer prognosis.

Although the body does need rest to renew and repair, one of the best ways to fight fatigue is to remain physically active.

Researchers with the University of Rochester Medical Center conducted a review of more than 100 past studies which included data on more than 11,000 adult cancer patients. The two best ways to help patients combat cancer-related fatigue was behavioral therapy and exercise.

"Exercise and psychological treatment, and the combination of these two interventions, work the best for treating cancer-related fatigue -- better than any pharmaceuticals we have tested," noted study lead author Karen Mustian, an associate professor with the University.

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The good news is that exercise also has other positive benefits for cancer survivors, such as stress reduction and improvements to physical functioning and cognitive functioning.

For the most part, the exercise regiments were gentle in nature. Walking, especially outdoors to reap the benefits of nature therapy, is one that can be easily done by most patients. Mind-body techniques such as yoga and tai chi have also been found to be beneficial.

"Our recommendation for survivors is essentially avoid inactivity as best you can. There will be days when you feel like not doing much of anything, and that's okay, but strive to do something. Even if it is gentle stretching exercises, or a five-minute walk down the block," says Colleen Doyle of the American Cancer Society.

Journal Reference:
Karen M. Mustian PhD MPH et al. Comparison of Pharmaceutical, Psychological, and Exercise Treatments for Cancer-Related Fatigue: A Meta-analysis. JAMA Oncol. 2017; doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2016.6914

Additional Resource:
American Cancer Society

Photo Credit:
By Drmirshak - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons