Exercise Can Help Fight Cancer Fatigue

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