Fatigue, a prevalent and long-lasting side effect of cancer and its treatment, can have a debilitating impact on individuals. However, researchers from Brown University’s Carney Institute for Brain Science have discovered that practicing qigong, a mind-body movement technique, can lead to significant improvements in fatigue among people with cancer-related fatigue. Surprisingly, the study found that qigong was as effective as a more intensive exercise and nutrition program in reducing fatigue.
The study, led by Stephanie R. Jones, an associate professor of neuroscience at Brown, builds upon the work of Catherine Kerr, the late Assistant Professor of Family Medicine, and analyzes the effects of regular qigong practice on cancer-related fatigue compared to exercise-based fatigue treatments.
Even years after completing treatment, up to 45% of cancer survivors report moderate to severe fatigue, which can be more burdensome and disruptive to daily life than ongoing pain, nausea, and depression. While previous studies have demonstrated the positive impact of exercise on fatigue, there is currently insufficient evidence to recommend a specific exercise type or regimen. Furthermore, some patients with fatigue may find moderate-to-vigorous exercise programs too overwhelming.
“Our study is important because it is the first randomized clinical trial to directly compare qigong practice to exercise, which is considered the gold standard for fatigue treatment,” explained Jones. “It is exciting to see that individuals who engage in gentle non-aerobic intentional movements can achieve the same level of improvement as those undertaking moderate strength training and aerobic exercise.”
The study involved 24 female participants who had completed cancer treatment, including surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy, at least eight weeks prior to the research. All participants reported cancer-related fatigue and agreed to participate in a 10-week program.
Half of the participants attended qigong classes, which involve gentle, rhythmic, and repetitive movements along with meditation. The other half participated in a healthy living program that incorporated physical exercises such as Pilates-like core movements, resistance training, aerobic exercise, and general health and nutrition education. The classes took place twice a week, with each session lasting approximately two hours, at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Researchers analyzed changes in participants’ fatigue, emotional health, and stress levels before and after the intervention in both groups.
Published in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies, the findings revealed that both interventions significantly improved cancer-related fatigue, surpassing the established “minimal clinically important difference” by more than double. The qigong group demonstrated outcomes comparable to those in the exercise and nutrition group. Participants in the qigong group also reported significant improvements in mood, emotion regulation, and stress, while those in the exercise and nutrition program experienced significant enhancements in sleep quality and fatigue levels.
Mind-body approaches, including qigong, yoga, mindfulness, and tai-chi, are gaining recognition for their potential to improve physical, emotional, and cognitive health, all of which are beneficial for individuals dealing with cancer-related fatigue. Notably, the researchers highlight that a gentle and low-intensity practice like qigong can provide similar physical benefits to exercise without the same level of physical effort, which can be challenging for cancer survivors.
Jones and her team are now investigating how qigong may influence an individual’s perception of fatigue, studying changes in electrophysiological measures of brain and muscle activity in each group.
It is important to note that this study involved a relatively small sample size of 24 women, and future research should explore mind-body interventions for cancer-related fatigue with larger and more diverse study populations.
This study, which stemmed from the initiative of Catherine Kerr, the late Dr. Kerr, who directed translational neuroscience at Brown University’s Contemplative Studies Initiative, was driven by her personal journey with multiple myeloma and the benefits she experienced through qigong practice. The research received funding from the Berkman-Landis Family Fund.
Jones expressed hope that this study, conceived by Dr. Kerr, will pave the way for further scientific inquiry into the healing potential of qigong. Chloe Zimmerman, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Brown, who worked on the research under Dr. Kerr’s mentorship, stressed the importance of exploring the healing effects of mind-body practices that have historically been disregarded by the biomedical clinical and research communities in rigorously designed studies.
Contributors to this study from Brown University include Research Assistant Dylan Daniels, Assistant Research Professor Simona Temereanca, and undergraduate students Cooper Penner and Tariq Cannonier.