A recent large-scale study demonstrates two forms of yoga can significantly reduce fatigue and other side effects related to cancer treatment.
When a researcher calls the results of a study “remarkable,” it catches people’s attention. When that study is related to cancer treatment, the results are even more remarkable.
For centuries, people have practiced yoga as a way to relax the mind while toning the body. Practitioners have preached its many benefits, but doctors were hesitant to support yoga until they had a chance to study it in a controlled environment. While several small studies suggested yoga could reduce the side effects of cancer treatment, a large-scale study wasn’t conducted until 2010.
The results of that study were highlighted at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The study showed yoga produced benefits across the board, reducing several of the most common side effects reported by cancer survivors.
The Power of Post-Treatment Yoga
In the study, University of Rochester researchers randomized more than 400 cancer survivors who had significant sleep disturbances into one of two groups. Participants were either simply monitored with no additional intervention or took part in 75-minute yoga sessions twice a week for one month. Lead researcher Karen Mustian, PhD, of the University of Rochester Cancer Center was amazed by the differences between the two groups after such a short period.
Individuals in the yoga group reported:
- Reduction in fatigue
- Less daytime sleepiness
- Decrease in the use of sleep medication
- Increase in sleep quality
- Increase in their quality of life
Fatigue is the most common side effect reported by cancer patients and survivors, with upwards of 96 percent of people being affected at some point. Experiencing sleep disturbances is another common side effect that can contribute to fatigue. Researchers found simply practicing yoga twice a week reduced fatigue by 42 percent in the participants.
"If you know a cancer patient who is suffering with sleep problems... who is trying to work, raise children, take care of elderly parents or live their life in a healthy manner... I think these findings are striking," says Dr. Mustian. "The fact that we can reduce the amount of fatigue by almost half is huge, because it's one of the most prevalent and troubling side effects reported by the greatest number of cancer patients across all diagnoses."
Subsequent studies have found other benefits connected to yoga, when it’s used as an integrative therapy. Patients and survivors have reported better pain management, less anxiety and improved mood after taking part in structured yoga sessions.
Types of Yoga Beneficial for Cancer Survivors
Dr. Mustian noted she and the other researchers purposely chose types of yoga that would be the most readily available to people across the country. The two types of yoga studied—Hatha and restorative yoga—are also gentle on the body. Both focus on holding various poses, breathing exercises and mindfulness.
"The gentle Hatha poses are used in almost every type of yoga," Dr. Mustian says. "By using those forms of yoga, we felt more people would have a good chance of finding instructors to teach them these poses."
While restorative yoga is less widespread, it's become more popular in recent years. For most of the poses pillows, blocks, towels and other props are used to support the body. "You're in different positions, but you're fully supported. Some people even close their eyes or cover them with pads. The idea is to completely let your body be supported by something else," says Dr. Mustian.
If you want to incorporate yoga into your weekly routine, Dr. Mustian recommends finding a yoga instructor who is certified by the Yoga Alliance. It’s also best if he or she has prior experience working with cancer patients and survivors. However, she stresses the outcomes of her study may not extend to other types of yoga, such as yoga in a heated room or vigorous yoga that raises the heart rate.
Before taking yoga classes, discuss the option with your doctor, who can help you decide which type of yoga to try and how to safely incorporate it into your daily schedule.