Mind-body practice can reduce fatigue in cancer

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Fatigue is a widespread and often long-lasting side effect of cancer and its treatments.

It’s reported by up to 45% of cancer survivors, even years after their treatment has stopped. This fatigue can be more disruptive to daily life than pain, nausea, and depression.

A new study, published in Cancer Therapies, has shown that practicing qigong, a mind-body movement practice, can significantly improve cancer-related fatigue.

The researchers also found it to be as effective as a more intensive exercise and nutrition program.

While exercise has been shown to help improve fatigue, it’s not yet clear what kind of exercise or regimen is best. For some patients, a moderate to vigorous exercise program may be too much to handle.

“Our study is the first randomized clinical trial to compare qigong practice to the best standards of care for fatigue, which is exercise,” says Stephanie R. Jones, an associate professor of neuroscience at Brown University.

The Study: Qigong vs. Exercise and Nutrition

The study included 24 female participants who had completed cancer treatment at least eight weeks prior to the research. They were assigned to one of two groups.

One group took classes in qigong, a Chinese mind-body practice involving gentle movements and meditation. The other group participated in a healthy living class incorporating physical exercise and general health and nutrition education.

The researchers found that both interventions significantly improved cancer-related fatigue, with the improvement levels more than double the established “minimal clinically important difference”.

This is the smallest change in score that is seen as relevant by both patients and physicians.

The qigong group reported significant improvements in mood, emotion regulation, and stress, while the exercise and nutrition group reported significant improvements in sleep and fatigue levels.

Mind-Body Approaches: Gentle but Effective

Mind-body approaches like qigong, yoga, mindfulness, and tai-chi are increasingly being recognized for their potential to improve physical, emotional, and cognitive health, which could be beneficial for those with cancer-related fatigue.

Importantly, a gentle, low-intensity practice like qigong could offer some of the same benefits as exercise without the same level of physical effort, which can be challenging for someone who has recently undergone a major experience like cancer treatment.

The researchers are now studying how qigong might affect a person’s perception of fatigue. They’re also examining changes in electrophysiological measures of brain and muscle activity that occur with each group’s practice.

Though this study was relatively small and focused on women, future research could examine the effects of mind-body interventions for cancer-related fatigue in larger and more diverse populations.

The work for this study was initiated by Catherine Kerr, who found benefits from qigong practice after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 1995.

Jones hopes that this research will set a foundation for more scientific investigation into the healing trajectories promoted by qigong.

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The study was published in Cancer Therapies.

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