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Cancer Related Fatigue – How Exercise Can Help

Nancy Campbell, MS
Exercise Physiologist
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Fatigue is one of the most common side effects that you may experience as a cancer survivor. The fatigue can precede your diagnosis, or start when treatments begin.

It can become chronic, meaning that it can linger. Many survivors are surprised to learn that being physically active can help decrease the fatigue. Over the past decade there has been a significant increase in research focused on how beneficial exercise can be. Being active can help build lean muscle mass and reduce side effects of treatment like deconditioning, which may cause fatigue during and after treatment. Physical activity can also reduce anxiety and depression, which can contribute to tiredness.

A common reaction to fatigue might be to pull back and rest, and for caretakers to be very protective and try to take over. Encouraging survivors to be more active, such as offering to go for a 10-minute walk together, can make some of the most significant positive impacts. Ironically, too much rest and too little activity actually promotes fatigue.

One of the single most important things to do when struggling with cancer related fatigue is to create a plan to remain active throughout the cancer journey. Below are some other tips to help get started or stay motivated:

  1. Check With Your Doctor: Before you begin, make sure that your exercise plan won’t interfere with treatment or recovery. Ask your doctor about any precautions you should take and whether there are activities you should avoid.
  2. Choose 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 using an elliptical. You may also benefit from mind and body exercises, such as Qigong, tai chi, and yoga.
  3. Start At a Pace That Matches Your Fitness Level: Ideally, you’ll want to build up to at least 3 hours of moderate activity each week to help reduce your fatigue. Focus on small incremental goals. Do not try to increase your activity level by more than 10 percent a week. Start with light activity for short periods of time and build up until you’ve reached 3 to 5 hours of activity a week.
  4. Find a Fitness Buddy: Consider joining an exercise class or walking with a friend. Exercising with other people can give you the motivation and support to make exercise a regular part of your recovery. Find the right exercise routine for you and then do your best to stick with it!
  5. Focus On Consistency: Use a calendar to pencil in when you are planning to do your physical activity for the coming week. Make sure to protect that time like you would a doctor’s appointment.
  6. 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 exercising include: extreme shortness of breath, an unusually fast heart rate, or dizziness. Listen to your body; if it doesn’t feel right, dial back the intensity of your workout.

Remember, a little bit of something is better than nothing – 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, stepping out the door to take a short walk around the block or starting a stretching program to regain your range of motion can be helpful. You may also want to make an appointment with a nutritionist to make sure that you are getting the appropriate amount of hydration and nutrients in your diet. The key is to stay active, even a little bit, to maintain your mobility, flexibility, and health as you recover.