March 19, 2019 by John Fernandez
How Exercise Can Beat Cancer-Related Fatigue
The benefits of regular exercise to reach or maintain a healthy weight or combat chronic disease are well established. Now, you can add cancer-related fatigue to the growing list of health issues that can be relieved through an exercise program that includes strength-building and aerobics.
Fatigue is arguably the most common side effect of cancer treatments, although nausea and hair loss (which is common with some types of chemotherapy) are more widely known adverse reactions. But fatigue can result from medications, not eating enough during and after cancer treatment, not getting enough sleep or even depression.
A new study published in JAMA Oncology finds that exercise and psychological interventions are most effective at treating cancer-related fatigue — even more effective than additional medication to treat the fatigue. Of course, every cancer patient is unique, and exercise programs should be tailored to the individual, in most cases starting out with a minimally challenging routine, such as walking for a few minutes or using light weight-resistance — and building from there, researchers said.
The study reviewed data on 11,500 cancer patients who had taken part in 113 separate studies. Researcher found that even short, 10-minute bouts of brisk walking throughout the day had a more positive impact than medication to treat the fatigue.
‘First-Line’ Treatment for Fatigue
“Cancer-related fatigue remains one of the most prevalent and troublesome adverse events experienced by patients with cancer during and after therapy,” the study’s authors conclude. “Clinicians should prescribe exercise and/or psychological interventions as first-line treatments.”
Cancer-related fatigue is different from other types of exhaustion. Sleep may not help these patients, who may feel fatigued doing everyday activities that healthier individuals may take for granted, such as talking on the phone, shopping for groceries, even lifting a fork to eat, according to the American Cancer Society.
“Among our patients, a majority experience some fatigue and that can persist even after treatment, says Joann Santiago-Charles, oncology exercise physiologist, Miami Cancer Institute. “We monitor their fatigue. But in patients that exercise, we’ve noticed improvement over a period of time. In the beginning, they may rate their level of fatigue at 7, on a scale from 1 to 10. But, after exercising for a few weeks, they say they’re at a fatigue level of 2.”
As part of its support services for cancer patients, Miami Cancer Institute has launched an exercise program for cancer survivors. (See the video below with Ms. Santiago-Charles)
Getting Start is the Biggest Challenge
“The hardest thing is getting started,” she explains. “We begin slowly, find out which time of day they have the most energy and start then. They can start exercise in 10-minute segments, instead of doing too much at one time. Studies have shown a cumulative benefit to exercise throughout the day. For example, doing 10 minutes of physical activity in the morning, then 10 minutes in the afternoon.”
The support group setting can help motive those with cancer-related fatigue, as in the case of the exercise program overseen by Ms. Santiago-Charles.
“Patients enjoy the small group setting,” she adds. “They come in and see friends they know. That support also makes them more comfortable. They develop bonds and feel comfortable having someone there for guidance.”