Exercise may ease fatigue during chemo


 Doctors sometimes recommend exercise as a way to combat the fatigue from chemotherapy. PIC GETTY IMAGESWhat do we know already?

People with cancer often take chemotherapy drugs to help rid their body of cancer cells. But chemotherapy can also affect healthy cells, which can cause nausea and other side effects, and make people feel generally unwell. Fatigue is one of the most frequent and burdensome side effects of chemotherapy.

Doctors sometimes recommend exercise as a way to combat fatigue in general, but few studies have explored whether it might also help people who get tired while having chemotherapy.

Now researchers have looked at whether doing a mixture of high- and low-intensity exercise might reduce fatigue for people having chemotherapy for many different types of cancer.

What does the new study say?

The six-week study found that people who followed an exercise programme while having chemotherapy were likely to feel less tired and they also reported improved activity levels, vitality, and emotional wellbeing. Fitness also improved, with muscle strength increasing by an average of 30 per cent, and breathing capacity expanding by about 10 per cent.

The programme consisted of nine hours of supervised exercise a week. It combined high-intensity physical training (including cardiovascular exercise and resistance training), with relaxation, body-awareness training (focusing on breathing and posture, for example), and massage.

Both people with advanced and earlier-stage cancer benefited from the six-week exercise programme, say the researchers. But despite these improvements, people doing exercise weren’t any more likely to rate their overall health and quality of life as having improved. This may be because of the extremely disruptive effect cancer and its treatment can have on a person’s health and life. Six weeks of an exercise programme might not be enough to make a difference in overall wellbeing, say the researchers.

How reliable are the findings?

This study was a randomised controlled trial, which is the best type of study for finding out if a treatment works. It compared results from a group of chemotherapy patients who did exercise, with another group who did not. With 269 patients in all, it was also quite large.

In some trials, it’s possible to make sure that participants don’t know if they are getting the active treatment or a placebo (dummy) treatment. This means that their expectations can’t influence the results. But obviously in this trial, the patients knew whether they were in the exercise group or not, and this could have influenced their response.

Where does the study come from?

The research was done in two hospitals in Copenhagen, and it was funded by several Danish research foundations and charities. The study was published in the British Medical Journal.

What does this mean for me?

If you are having chemotherapy, this study suggests that an intensive exercise programme might help lessen your fatigue and provide other benefits as well. But bear in mind that the exercise programme in the study was highly structured, with close supervision from both fitness and medical staff. The study didn’t explore whether other types of exercise might also help or be safe.

What should I do now?

If you’re getting side effects from chemotherapy, talk to your doctor. If fatigue is one of your symptoms, you might also ask about an exercise programme. But be sure to get your doctor’s advice on what types of exercise would be best, and how to do them safely.

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