Vitality

Exercise Helps Breast Cancer Patients Tolerate Chemotherapy; Reduces Fatigue, Nausea, and Pain

old woman exercising
Exercise — particularly for women past menopause — is crucial for mental and physical health; but it has also been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer, as well as alleviate some of the adverse side effects of chemotherapy. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Physical activity — even low amounts of it — can make a huge difference for cancer patients suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy, a new study finds.

While chemotherapy battles the cancer, it leaves patients with compromised immune systems and crushing fatigue, nausea, and pain. At times, the chemotherapy side effects are so bad that cancer patients are unable to finish their chemo plan without adjusting the dose.

In the study, conducted by the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NCI), researchers divided 230 breast cancer patients into three groups. The first group was involved in a moderately intensive aerobic and strength program, guided by a trained physiotherapist; the second group was assigned to a low intensity aerobic program that was done at home, and the third group partook in no exercise at all. The women in the first two groups, who exercised either a lot or a little, all experienced less fatigue, pain, and nausea during chemotherapy. But the women who benefited the most were those who were involved in the moderately intensive aerobic program — they were able to tolerate chemotherapy the best, with only 12 percent needing a dose adjustment. Among those who didn’t exercise, 34 percent needed a dose adjustment.

“Women who followed the moderately intensive, supervised exercise program better tolerated the chemotherapy,” Neil Aaronson, an author of the study, said in the press release. “But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the outcome of their treatment will be more positive. More research is needed into the relationship between the exact chemotherapy dosage received and long term survival and the chance of recurrence, before we can say anything about the positive effect of exercise on clinical outcomes.”

Even though the authors are being careful with their conclusions, it’s safe to say that exercise can only do you good. Plenty of studies have shown that consistent exercise, especially after menopause, actually decreases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. One 2014 study found that losing just five to 10 percent of body weight through exercise and diet could cut a woman’s risk of breast cancer in half. It’s important to note that the focus here isn’t on diet; rather, it’s solely exercise that has shown consistently to improve health on all accounts. In the same 2014 study, women who simply dieted but didn’t exercise didn’t experience the same reduced risk as those who exercised.

For those who are suffering from viral diseases like mononucleosis, or who have other disabilities or conditions, it’s often advised to fight the fatigue and get moving sooner versus later. Similarly, the authors of the study found that it’s better for chemotherapy patients to remain as active as possible — even if that means slowing down or lessening the intensity of their normal workouts.

“In the past, patients who received chemotherapy were advised to take it slow,” Aaronson said in the press release. “But actually, it is better for these patients to be as active as possible. Our study shows that even low intensity exercise has a positive effect on the side effects of the chemotherapy. That is good news for those who really don’t feel like going to the gym. Small amounts of exercise are already beneficial compared to being non-active.”

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