How Does Exercise Help Fatigue After Cancer?



Exercise is well documented in the medical research to be one of the best “treatments” for cancer survivor fatigue. But how does physical exertion actually give you more energy?

Here are a few reasons exercise has this miraculous effect.

Exercise increases your endorphins. 

Endorphins are neurotransmitters, the hormone molecules in our nervous system that hang out in the spaces between neurons and help transmit electric signals from cell to cell.

Stress and pain are two common sensations that lead to endorphin release. Endorphins have a particular affinity for opiate receptors in the brain - these are the same receptors upon which morphine acts - and this is no coincidence. They are the brain’s built-in painkillers.

Endorphins help us feel happy, regulate our appetite, release sex hormones, and enhance the immune system. Higher endorphin levels mean less pain and mitigate the negative effects of stress.

So what does this have to do with exercise? Well, exercise so happens to make us produce more endorphins. They’re released when we require a burst of energy and get us going, make us move.

Greater availability of these molecules give you the sensation of having more energy because they are triggered by, and themselves trigger, all those positive feelings we associate with greater energy - joy, strength, well being - an appetite for life.

Exercise improves heart health. 

This one is a no-brainer - but so important for cancer survivors.

Exercise makes your heart strong and capable of pumping oxygen to your organs and tissues efficiently. This gives you greater endurance throughout the day and you feel less tired.

When it's easier to do your daily activities, you have energy left over when your day’s obligations are done.

Because cancer survivors frequently have complications and side effects that cause you to be very sedentary, it’s an uphill climb to get back in shape after cancer.

The uphill battle is worth it, however, because getting your body in shape will lead to greater energy.

Essentially, there’s no greater time than survivorship to exercise - to gain back your strength and endurance.

Exercise results in better sleep. 

Cancer survivors are at risk for insomnia. The medications you’ve been exposed to, the anxiousness over your health, and the disruption of your regular schedule all contribute to poor sleep quality.

Exercise can lead to a good night's rest so you feel more refreshed during your day. Exercise is thought to decrease insomnia by a variety of mechanisms.

First, there may be an effect on body temperature. Exercise triggers an increase in temperature and the subsequent drop in body temperature helps you fall asleep.

Exercise also reduces sleep problems caused by feelings of anxiety. The increase in availability of endorphins promoted by exercise is probably responsible for this.

Finally, exercise may reduce insomnia by its effects on your body clock. Exercise can shift the timing of your body clock and help you sleep. This is particularly important for those cancer survivors who have gotten their day and night mixed up due to the change in routine cancer has caused in your life.

A study published in April 2015 in the Journal of Sleep Research looked at people with insomnia who did moderate exercise for at least 150 minutes a week. They found this activity significantly reduced the severity of insomnia symptoms.

Exercise gives you sharper mental focus.

The perception of fatigue is increased when your brain is muddled and foggy. A good workout can turn this muddled feeling around and make you feel energized and ready to tackle problems.

Why is this?

Well, it’s due to our old friends, the endorphins.

When we have an ample supply of neurotransmitters for our cells to utilize, our brain can think more efficiently. We perceive this as clarity of thought.

When your thoughts are clear, you can make plans of action and see them through.

Essentially, you perceive you have the energy to accomplish tasks when you can plan ways to complete them, and the mental sharpness you get from exercising makes this more likely.

Exercise lifts your mood.

It’s well documented that regular exercise correlates with better mood, and a good mood makes you feel energized and well.

There are several mechanisms and factors at work in this and the exact mechanism has been hard to pin down.

A 2013 review in Neuropsychobiology showed exercise releases neurotransmitters and proteins to help nerve cells make new connections, possibly improving brain function and resulting in better mood.

Exercise can also improve mood because of the social perspective it brings. When you get outside and see life’s activity, children playing, flowers blooming, it gets you out of your head and improves your mood.

When you go to the gym, you interact with people you see every day. You talk, you learn about people’s lives.

Exercise makes you feel better because it makes you a member of your community.

What exercise should cancer survivors do to boost energy?

Any exercise or physical activity that gets the heart rate up and the blood flowing will release endorphins and raise your energy level.

Walking 20 minutes per day is a great place to start. Add a little resistance training to your walking routine and you’ll have the added benefit of improved strength and balance, and you’ll be well on your way to boundless energy!

Brio’s upcoming 6 week signature online survivor wellness program, The Survivor Fatigue Solution, tackles the issue of exercise head on. If you’d like a free sample of the exercise plans provided in the program, download it by clicking the button below.

Take care, survivor!