Physical activity could combat fatigue, cognitive decline in cancer survivors

July 25, 2017 by Liz Ahlberg Touchstone, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Illinois postdoctoral researcher Diane Ehlers and professor Edward McAuley found that physical activity may have cognitive benefits for cancer survivors struggling with fatigue and 'chemo brain.' Credit: L. Brian Stauffer

A new study indicates that cancer patients and survivors have a ready weapon against fatigue and "chemo brain": a brisk walk.

Researchers at the University of Illinois, along with collaborators at Digital Artefacts in Iowa City, Iowa, and Northeastern University in Boston, looked at the association between , fatigue and performance on in nearly 300 breast cancer survivors.

"The data suggest that being more physically active could reduce two of the more commonly reported symptoms in breast cancer survivors: fatigue and ," said study leader Edward McAuley, a professor of kinesiology and community health at Illinois. "Most people think, 'If I exercise, I'll become tired.' In our study, exercise actually was associated with reduced fatigue, which in turn was associated with better cognitive function."

Cognitive impairment, such as memory problems or shortened attention spans, is a common complaint among cancer patients and survivors, and is thought to be similar to decline due to aging. Past Illinois research has explored the effect of physical fitness on age-related cognitive decline, so the researchers wondered whether cancer survivors would respond similarly to exercise.

"Other studies of cancer survivors have relied on small samples of cancer survivors, and used self-reporting measures of physical activity and cognitive function, which can be very biased," said postdoctoral researcher Diane Ehlers, the first author of the study, which is published in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. "What makes our study novel is that we had objective measures for both physical activity and , and a nationwide sample of breast cancer survivors."

The researchers worked with Digital Artefacts—developer of the commercial neuroscience app BrainBaseline - to create an iPad app tailored to this study. The app included questionnaires and activities designed to measure attention, memory and multitasking skills. The researchers also sent each participant an accelerometer to track daily physical activity.

"We found that higher levels of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity were associated with better performance on the cognitive tasks measuring attention, memory and multitasking," Ehlers said. "What was notable was that physical activity's effect on cognitive performance was mediated by fatigue. This provides evidence that physical activity interventions targeting fatigue in cancer patients and survivors might provide promising models for improving cognitive function as well."

Next, the researchers plan to conduct further studies to establish causation and further explore the pathways of how physical exercise improves cognitive performance. They are working with Digital Artefacts to conduct an iPhone-based study and focusing on diverse populations of .

"The message for patients and survivors is, get active!" Ehlers said. "Even if it's 10-minute bouts of brisk walking. It's not a magical cure-all, but we've seen many benefits of physical activity for and survivors."

Explore further: Exercise improves memory in breast cancer survivors

More information: Diane K. Ehlers et al, The effects of physical activity and fatigue on cognitive performance in breast cancer survivors, Breast Cancer Research and Treatment (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s10549-017-4363-9

Related Stories

Exercise improves memory in breast cancer survivors

July 8, 2016
Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity is related to improved subjective memory in breast cancer survivors, who often complain about memory problems, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study. It appears the physical activity ...

Web-based cognitive exercises improve memory and attention in cancer survivors

October 31, 2016
A new study suggests that a widely available web-based program (Insight) can help cancer survivors reporting cognitive symptoms. The 15-week program markedly improved participants' self-reported (perceived) cognitive function, ...

Exercise can significantly improve brain function after stroke

February 22, 2017
Structured exercise training can significantly improve brain function in stroke survivors, according to research presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference 2017.

Sleep issues contribute to cognitive problems in childhood cancer survivors

April 11, 2011
A new analysis has found that childhood cancer survivors often suffer from sleep problems and fatigue, which negatively impact their attention and memory. Published early online in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American ...

Decreased physical activity common after cancer diagnosis

January 25, 2017
(HealthDay)—Exercise can help cancer patients cope with their treatment, but as many as 75 percent reduce their physical activity after diagnosis, according to a study presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's ...

Exercise prescribed to reduce fatigue in cancer survivors

November 25, 2016
New research about what type of exercise best helps cancer survivors overcome fatigue has won PhD student Kirsten Adlard a Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) award.

Recommended for you

PARP inhibitor improves progression-free survival in patients with advanced breast cancers

August 15, 2018
In a randomized, Phase III trial led by researchers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the PARP inhibitor talazoparib extended progression-free survival (PFS) and improved quality-of-life measures over ...

Scientists discover chemical which can kill glioblastoma cells

August 15, 2018
Aggressive brain tumour cells taken from patients self-destructed after being exposed to a chemical in laboratory tests, researchers have shown.

New clues into how 'trash bag of the cell' traps and seals off waste

August 15, 2018
The mechanics behind how an important process within the cell traps material before recycling it has puzzled scientists for years. But Penn State researchers have gained new insight into how this process seals off waste, ...

Three scientists share $500,000 prize for work on cancer therapy

August 15, 2018
Tumors once considered untreatable have disappeared and people previously given months to live are surviving for decades thanks to new therapies emerging from the work of three scientists chosen to receive a $500,000 medical ...

RUNX proteins act as regulators in DNA repair, study finds

August 15, 2018
A study by researchers from the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore (CSI Singapore) at the National University of Singapore has revealed that RUNX proteins are integral to efficient DNA repair via the Fanconi Anemia (FA) ...

Chemicals found in vegetables prevent colon cancer in mice

August 14, 2018
Chemicals produced by vegetables such as kale, cabbage and broccoli could help to maintain a healthy gut and prevent colon cancer, a new study from the Francis Crick Institute shows.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.