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Combat 'chemo brain' with exercise

Cancer patients should add taking a brisk walk to their treatment prescription. A new study has found  exercise may combat 'chemo brain,' a condition that often accompanies a cancer diagnosis.  

Up to 75 percent of patients being treated for cancer experience difficulty with memory, thinking, attention and concentration. This mental fog is called chemo brain and is not just related to chemotherapy. It can occur in patients undergoing any type of cancer treatment, as well as those who are not receiving active treatment. It may be related to the stress, anxiety and depression that can accompany a cancer diagnosis. For most patients, this effect is annoying but temporary; for some, it persists long after treatment and interfere with daily life.  

One way to manage energy and fight chemo brain is exercise. Exercise has been shown to combat fatigue, as well as improve mood, reduce anxiety and depression and improve physical well-being. It has also been known to improve cognition. One explanation is that the increased blood flow to the brain from exercise stimulates the nerve cells and nerve pathways, thus improving thinking.

Researchers from the University of Illinois, Digital Artefacts in Iowa City, Iowa, and Northeastern University in Boston looked at more than 300 breast cancer survivors and measured the effects of daily activity on chemo brain. They found those who exercised more had less fatigue and scored better on cognitive tests. The more they exercised, the better their results.

The prescription, then, for cancer patients is the same as for everyone: moderate exercise for 150 to 300 minutes a week. But remember, what is moderate for one person, may be too strenuous or too light for others. Try the talk test to determine if your exercise is moderate. You should be able to talk and hold a conversation while exercising, but you shouldn't be able to sing a song.

Some cancer patients may need to start more slowly. If exercise was not routine before the diagnosis, build up activity level over time. Luckily, research has shown even brief, 10-minute bouts of physical activity are beneficial.

If you are undergoing cancer treatment, consider adding exercise to your daily routine, even if you are feeling tired or foggy. Be sure to talk with your health care provider before making any change to your exercise program. Seeing an occupational therapist or physical therapist can help if you have chemo brain symptoms.


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