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Exercise helps cancer fatigue

WebMD UK Health News Brief
Medically Reviewed by Dr Farah Ahmed
 young couple walking

3rd March 2017 - Exercise alone, or with psychological therapy, work better than medication to help cancer-related fatigue, according to new research.

A large study, published in JAMA Oncology (The Journal of the American Medical Association) concludes exercise and psychological interventions, not medication, should be the first things recommended to patients with cancer-related fatigue.

Cancer related fatigue

According to the main author of the new study, Karen Mustian, cancer-related fatigue is different from being long-term tired. She says it's a crushing sensation that's not relieved by rest or sleep, and can persist for months or years. It might be the disease or the treatment causing the fatigue but she believes it can lower a person's chances of survival because it reduces the likelihood they'll complete medical treatments.

She says that rather than having extra cups of coffee, taking a nap, or using some type of medication, consider a 15-minute walk instead.

The study

Cancer Research UK already says that light to moderate exercise every day helps people with cancer to feel better and can give them more energy. It acknowledges that there is now a great deal of research which shows that exercise can help reduce cancer related fatigue.

This latest study adds to that pool of knowledge.

The scientists at the University of Rochester (New York) Medical Center analysed 113 unique studies which tested various treatments for cancer-related fatigue. All 11,525 participants (78% female) had cancer-related fatigue. Fifty-three of the studies (46.9%) were on women with breast cancer, and the remaining studies were performed among patients with other cancer types. Fifty-four studies included only women and 10 studies included only men. The average age of participantswas 54.


Scientists concluded that exercise or psychological interventions, such as therapy designed to adapt the way a person thinks about his or her circumstances, reduced cancer-related fatigue the most.

Studies that combined exercise and psychological therapy had mixed results.

The data also showed that medications used for treating cancer-related fatigue, like the psychostimulants ritalin and modafinil were not as effective as exercise with or without psychological therapy.

The researchers say people being treated for cancer already take a lot of medications - which already have risks and side effects - so avoiding more medication may benefit patients.

Don't overdo it

Cancer Research UK says doing a bit of exercise every day will make you feel less tired and your appetite is likely to improve as well. It says overall exercise may help patients cope better and be happier in themselves. However, it cautions that you mustn't overdo it, if you are really aching the next day then you are doing too much.

Get advice from your doctor before starting any strenuous exercise programme.

Reviewed on March 03, 2017

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