Mind-body practice can improve cancer-related fatigue.
A low-impact, meditative movement program involving qigong was as effective as more standard exercise programs in improving cancer-related fatigue in a small study led by researchers at Brown.
Fatigue is a common, debilitating, and often long-term side effect of cancer as well as its treatment. Scientists affiliated with the Carney Institute for Brain Science found that people with cancer-related fatigue who practiced qigong, a Chinese mind-body movement practice, showed clinically significant improvements in fatigue over the course of a 10-week study.
Furthermore, qigong was as effective at reducing fatigue as a more energy-intensive exercise and nutrition program, they found.
“Our study is important because it is the first randomized clinical trial to directly compare qigong practice to the best standards of care for fatigue—namely, exercise,” says lead researcher Stephanie R. Jones, PhD, a professor of neuroscience in the Division of Biology and Medicine. “It would have been hard to predict that people who perform gentle, non-aerobic intentional movements would show the same level of improvement as those who go through moderate strength training and aerobic exercise. It is exciting that our findings establish that this is indeed the case.”
Jones built on work by the late Assistant Professor of Family Medicine Catherine Kerr, PhD, who before her death in 2016 directed translational neuroscience at the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown. Diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 1995, Kerr benefited from qigong practice and sought a better understanding of why—which inspired the current study.
The new study followed 24 female participants who had completed cancer treatment at least eight weeks prior to the research and who reported cancer-related fatigue. Half of the group was assigned to take classes in qigong, while the other half participated in a class that incorporated both physical exercise and general health and nutrition education.
The findings, published in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies, showed that both interventions reduced cancer-related fatigue. The participants in the qigong group also reported significant improvements in mood, emotion regulation, and stress, while those who had completed the exercise and nutrition program reported much better sleep and less fatigue.
Jones noted that this study of 24 women was relatively small, and that future research could study the effects of mind-body interventions for cancer-related fatigue with larger and more diverse study populations.
Study author Chloe Zimmerman ’15 MD’26 PhD’26 started working on this research under Kerr’s mentorship.
“Being a part of this clinical trial with qigong has shown me how much healing potential there is from practices that have been historically dismissed by the biomedical clinical and research communities,” Zimmerman says. “I think we have a responsibility to keep investigating how they may exert their healing effects in rigorously designed studies.”