Exercise Lessens Fatigue and Raises Quality of Life in Cancer Survivors

Going through cancer diagnosis and treatment is a draining experience – both physically and mentally – so it’s only natural that many survivors may want to just take a load off and not expend too much extra energy during their days.  Yet, a new report out of the Cochrane Collaboration suggests survivors may be denying themselves real relief from cancer-related fatigue if they too often choose to rest on the couch rather than go for a walk – even if they’re still going through treatment.

The new report – an update of a 2008 analysis – looked at 56 randomized controlled trials that studied the effects of exercise programs on levels of fatigue in cancer patients who were being treated or who had just finished treatment (report).   Patients had a range of cancers, from colon cancer and prostate cancer to leukemia and breast cancer, which was the most most common cancer studied.  The exercise programs varied as well, ranging in duration from a few weeks to a full year, with most about three months long.  Aerobic activities were the most common, but strength and flexibility programs were also included.

Fatigue is a widespread problem among cancer patients.  It can affect well over two thirds of survivors and can have serious effects on daily living. The overall results from the new analysis confirms what a lot of patients and oncologists have already been putting into practice: regular aerobic exercise (like bicycling and walking), even during treatment, can help reduce the level of fatigue related to cancer.  Other types of exercise, like strength training and yoga, were not found to lower fatigue levels, and the benefits also seemed limited to solid tumor cancers – like breast, colon, and prostate.  Patients with blood cancers, like lymphoma and leukemia, didn’t seem to get energy benefits from exercise.

By themselves, these new results are quite noteworthy, but combined with some related results also published by Cochrane this summer, and they give an even bigger boost to the evidence of cancer-related benefits of regular exercise.

That report combined the results of 40 studies of post-treatment exercise and found that it significantly improved the quality of life of cancer survivors compared to survivors who didn’t exercise (report).  Among other things, exercise raised overall quality of life, including improved well being, self esteem, and sexuality as well as lowererd rates of anxiety, pain, and yes, fatigue.

As with the new report, exercise routines in the studies were far ranging – from walking and swimming to yoga and weight training – so the authors couldn’t conclude which activities – if any – were better than any other in boosting quality of life.  They also only included studies looking at survivors who had completed treatment so could not make any conclusions about how exercise might help those who are in the middle of treatment.

Research has long showed how good exercise is for overall health and well-being.  And these two new reports show that its benefits don’t stop for cancer survivors. Though it can be hard for some patients to think about, maintaining (or starting) some sort of physical activity routine during and after treatment (assuming no medical limitations) is likely to be one of the best things they can do.

For more on healthy habits for cancer survivors, see our brochure Cancer Survivor’s 8ight Ways to Stay Healthy After Cancer.

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