Cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is a common side effect of cancer and cancer treatments and can often persist for months or even years after finishing treatments. CRF is a feeling of exhaustion that is different from other types of fatigue as it cannot usually be improved with sleep or rest. CRF can be so debilitating it may stop a patient from continuing with treatment. It can also influence your daily activities, social relationships, moods and emotions, job performance, well-being and sense of joy.
What can you do to help alleviate CRF?
It may sound strange, but regular exercise is one way that you can significantly reduce your fatigue! Exercise is like medicine and has a dose-response relationship with the body. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise can be beneficial for individuals with CRF during and post-cancer treatment to help to improve energy levels, sleep and overall quality of life.
Walking, bicycling, running, swimming and dancing are all examples of aerobic exercise. Your aim should be to achieve 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise per week. You may need to build up to this level over a period of weeks or months, especially if you are currently not active.
When using exercise to reduce CRF, it is important to ensure that your exercise intensity is appropriate. If you don’t work hard enough, you may not elicit any change in the body and if you work too hard you may exacerbate your fatigue and end up having days of inactivity (which defeats the purpose of the exercise). It is very important to see a Cancer Exercise Specialist (Kinesiologist or Exercise Physiologist with additional training in Cancer) to ensure that you understand the appropriate level of exercise for your body. Everyone is different, which is why you need to have an individualized exercise program to work off which uses heart rates and/or perceived exertion to measure intensity.
At InspireHealth, when prescribing exercise for a person with CRF, we work out your current fitness level, your resting heart rate, your current and previous exercise levels and your current level of fatigue. The level of CRF experienced can be measured by using different scales and questionnaires (e.g. Piper Fatigue Scale or Fatigue Symptom Inventory). Once we know all of these values, we can prescribe an appropriate exercise intensity, usually in the ‘moderate’ range!
- Get a fitness assessment from an InspireHealth Exercise Therapist (free for members)
- Once your assessment is complete, you will receive guidelines on how to exercise
- Get moving! Start by building on what you are currently doing. If you are currently doing nothing, try walking for 5 – 10 minutes 3 – 5 times per week. Build up to a minimum of 150 minutes per week.
- Be careful not to do too much! If what you are doing makes you stay in bed for a day then you have worked too hard and need to reduce the intensity of exercise.
Most importantly, have fun while you exercise. If you enjoy what you are doing you are more likely to stick with it!
About the Author
Sarah Weller, Kinesiologist (BCAK), Certified Exercise Physiologist (CSEP), Certified Cancer Exercise Specialist. She has over 7 years of experience prescribing exercise recovery programs for cancer patients in one-on-one and group-based settings. Sara works at Back on Track Fitness and provides health and fitness assessments and leads exercise classes for InspireHealth, Lower Mainland – Vancouver Centre.