Exercise Can Help Fight Cancer Fatigue

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By Nancy Campbell, MS

Cancer-related fatigue is one of the most common complaints among cancer patients and survivors. This type of weariness, which typically occurs during treatment or in the first year after, is particularly difficult because it can last for long periods of time and doesn’t go away after sleep or rest.

A growing body of research shows that cancer patients who get regular exercise report feeling less tired.

If you’re interested in starting an exercise routine to address fatigue, consider these tips:

  • AA038512Choose an exercise you enjoy. You’re more likely to stay active if you enjoy what you’re doing. Many cancer patients choose walking as their preferred exercise, but other examples include bicycling, swimming, or running. You may also benefit from mind and body exercises, such as Qigong, tai chi, and yoga – all of which are available through Dana-Farber’s Zakim Center
  • Check with your doctor. Before you begin, make sure that your exercise plan won’t interfere with your treatment or recovery. Ask your doctor about any precautions you should take and whether there are activities you should avoid.
  • Start at a pace that matches your fitness level. Ideally, you’ll want to get at least 3 to 5 hours of moderate activity every week to help reduce your fatigue. But don’t try to increase your activity level by more than 10 percent a week. So, for example, if you normally go for a 10-minute walk every day, don’t jump up to 30 minutes. Focus on incremental goals. Start with light activity for short periods of time and build up until you’ve reached a point where you’re getting at least 5 hours of activity.
  • Don’t overdo it. If you find that fatigue is becoming worse when you exercise, you’re probably going too hard. Other warning signs to watch for when you’re exercising include: extreme shortness of breath, an unusually fast heart rate, or dizziness. Listen to your body. If it doesn’t feel right, you should dial back the intensity of your workout.
Exercise physiologist Nancy Campbell holds classes for cancer patients.

Exercise physiologist Nancy Campbell holds classes for cancer patients.

Remember, a little bit of something is better than nothing. When I lead a women’s exercise class or meet with a patient for a free exercise consult, I like to remind participants that even small steps can help. Physical activity offers a range of benefits for cancer patients. It can help lower stress, strengthen muscle mass, elevate mood, improve sleep patterns, and more.

If you’re not feeling well enough to exercise, even stepping out the door to take a short walk around the block can be helpful. Or you may want to start a stretching program to regain your range of motion. The key is to stay active, even a little bit, to maintain your mobility and flexibility.

Visit Dana-Farber’s Slideshare page for a presentation on these exercise tips

13 Comments:

  1. Maureen Costello

    Exercise is just the best! This class, for free,and led by Nancy Campbell and interns, is designed to help cancer survivors feel better about their bodies and themselves. All the exercises repeated so you get the benefit of stretching, regular exercies and gentle yoga and Pilates. Nancy’s manner is so very gentle and supportive of each individual. They variety of equipment that is available is terrific and you can access the fuller selection if you wish! So happy this is available to us. Thank you s much!

  2. As a cancer surviver, I am a very strong proponent of consistent exercise. It was a critical component of my recover from the Wipple operation as well as coping with the 6 month chemo/radiation treatment program. Exercise (aerobic and strength training) has had both a positive mental and physical effect on me which was essential in my recovery process. Also, Nancy was very helpful in providing practical and supportive guidance with specific strengthening exercises. Her advice ensured that I maximized the benefits, while minimizing the risks of injury of my exercise program.

  3. I can’t say enough good things about how exercise has changed my life and body! Not only has it given me a feeling of control over my body (a feeling I felt I had lost after my cancer diagnosis) but it has really helped me to feel so strong and healthy. Also, I have found it to be the best solution to my anxiety brought on by being a survivor. Now a day doesn’t feel complete if I don’t get some form of exercise in!

  4. I have found that exercise has consistently helped me at various stages of treatment. After my initial treatment in 2011, I attended a workshop led by Nancy. As a consequence I joined and noticed that I became steadily stronger by attending classes twice weekly. I have just returned to class after an hiatus due to treatment for a recurrence. After just 2 classes I am noticing a difference. A huge plus is the connection and support received from Nancy and the cancer survivor class members

  5. Evangeline Reynolds

    I think exercise is just taking charge of the biology that has run our bodies for millions of years. We are just beginning to understand the role of exercise in the treatment of disease. And while we are hopefully cancer free, I just think its proactive to be prepared for everything getting slower and more difficult as we age. Thanks to Nancy, we are in training for a better quality of life.

  6. Great article and great responses! Have to say that if more patients/survivors would take advantage of the fabulous program offered by DFCI, I think we would see happier and healthier patients! Everyone needs to move beyond a life filled with cancer, and this is such a positive way to do just that. Nancy Campbell is such an amazing woman, we are all so blessed to have her! Nancy is acutely aware of each participant’s abilities/limitations, and she is constantly watching and working with each of us to ensure that we are staying within those limitations-she is totally hands-on. There is absolutely no stress put on anyone,and in fact, the classes are perfect in every way. Not only do you get to bring your body back into the best shape possible, but you get to do it with people who have been or are still going through exactly what you are. The benefits are both physical and emotional, and the camaraderie and companionship are simply priceless! I think we have all learned that exercise is very empowering and these classes give us the strength and courage to face whatever lies ahead. And….we are always looking forward to welcoming new participants!

  7. Actively in Treatment

    I am actively in treatment and have been frustrated by my level of fatigue from the chemo Part of the whole experience is resetting reasonable expectations on what I can now do. However, I was finding it hard to keep up with daily walks dur to the extremes in weather.I recently met with Nancy and felt the twice weekly exercise classes for women would be just the ticket to increase my strength and endurance as well as my energy level. The classes are great! I am so glad I learned about Nancy and the woman’s exercise class.It is yet one more important facet of my integrated healing program.

  8. Surgery and chemo really drained me of my strength and flexibility. I have been attending Nancy’s class now since the fall and it has made a huge difference. I remember the first class–I could barely look in the mirror in the exercise studio. Now I am feeling stronger, both physically and emotionally and I attribute a lot of it to Nancy’s class. The exercises are tailored with the participants in mind and I know I pushed myself in class in a way I never would have on my own at home.

  9. Nancy’s class promotes a positive attitude toward you well being. Being in treatment now it has strengthened my resolve to live my life to the best of my ability with a body that can feel as strong as it can be. I may not be able to accomplish all that I used to but I can certainly help myself feel better. The class is a great mix of cardio, strength building, Pilates, yoga and stretching. Nancy is always encouraging and hands-on respecting limitations. This class is a gem and it makes you feel so much better about yourself and your well being. In addition the companionship and friendships that you develop are priceless. I feel this class is a must ….you just feel so empowered and happy!

  10. Nancy’s exercise class has given me the support and confidence that, even when I am very fatigued from chemo, I can and am getting stronger. I wish more patients knew about these wonderful classes.
    You can go at your own pace, ask any questions and have them answered. The class itself has increased my energy level, as well as motivating me to walk and do a few exercises outside of class. I feel physically and emotionally lifted up from the class, and am so grateful this is offered without a cost to the participants.

  11. A grateful class particiant

    As a cancer survivor now in remission and frequent participant in Nancy Cambell’s class, I can’t agree more with all of the comments already posted on this blog site. One cannot possibly sufficiently extol the benefits of this DFCI-sponsored exercise program and class that Nancy leads. At least for most of us, it would be all but impossible to start a regular exercise program at a gym/one just does not have the strength/stamina to do so. Nancy’s understanding of the physical (and emotional) needs of ‘her students’ plays a crucial role in helping each individual get back on the road to feeling healthy and ‘normal’ again. The class is geared to building strength and flexibility and encompasses a range of exercises from gentle cardio, to strength training, to yoga and even pilates. Everyone is encouraged to participate at a level that works for them/there is no pressure/the environment is one of support. Upon leaving each session I never fail to feel invigorated, clearer of mind, and physically stronger.

  12. You can increase the efficacy of gentle exercise by combining it with breath work, such as Qigong. Qigong has been used with much success to help people with cancer, and is quite common in China. But, most importantly, you need to enjoy it, whatever it is that you choose to do.

  13. Great article. I was fortunate recently to have been a participant in a clinical trial looking at the effects of exercise and insulin levels on reoccurance. I worked with Nancy Campbell to increase my exercise gradually reaching 225 minutes per week (5 45 min sessions per week). I felt more energtic, lost weight and inches. Nancy was very knowledgable and a pleasure to be with during our workout sessions!

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