Exercise can be especially hard for people with a history of breast cancer because treatments may result in long-term physical side effects, including pain and fatigue. Hatha yoga, a set of postures and movements meant to align muscles and bone, may offer a gentler alternative to more vigorous forms of exercise.
According to a study recently published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, practicing this form of yoga for as few as 3 months may lessen fatigue and inflammation.
About a third of people affected by breast cancer report that fatigue gets in the way of daily activities. Pain and fatigue from treatments may result in less physical activity, which can lead to more inflammation and greater risk of disability and death.
Though past studies have highlighted yoga’s benefits, this study by Ohio State University researchers is the largest known randomized, controlled trial to compare levels of inflammation in the blood and draw conclusions about the effects of the practice. A randomized, controlled trial is considered the “gold standard” among clinical trials because people in the study are randomly assigned to an experimental group or a control group (without the intervention). The chance assignments help eliminate bias.
Researchers wanted to measure yoga’s impact on mood, fatigue and inflammation. They focused on women affected by breast cancer because treatments can be taxing.
The trial team recruited 200 women, who were randomly assigned to two groups. In one group, women participated in 90-minute hatha yoga sessions twice a week for 12 weeks. Researchers encouraged the women to practice the poses at home as well. That group was compared with a control group who did not practice yoga, but was put on a wait list to receive the same instruction once the trial was over.
All women in the study:
- were between the ages of 27 and 76 years
- were yoga novices
- had Stage 0 to IIIA breast cancer
- reported 5 hours or fewer of vigorous exercise per week
- completed all breast cancer treatments before the start of the study
Women gave blood samples after fasting, which were used to measure levels of inflammation. They completed surveys about energy level, sleep quality, foods and beverages consumed and mood at three points: before the yoga, immediately after the 12-week classes and again at 3 months after the classes ended.
Immediately after the 3 months of classes ended, women reported, on average, a 41 percent drop in fatigue and a 12 percent higher vitality score compared with the non-yoga group.
Three months after the classes ended, fatigue among women in the yoga group was reduced by 57 percent and inflammation was reduced by up to 20 percent compared with the control group. Yoga did not appear to affect mood in this study.
The results were striking because negative symptoms were reduced even though the women, overall, did not lose weight. Some past research involving exercise suggests inflammation is unlikely to be lowered without weight loss, but yoga may work in other ways to lower inflammation in the body.
The yoga group was not compared to an active control group so it’s possible the extra support from a group setting contributed to the positive results above and beyond the yoga practice. The researchers note, though, that women did not report changes in social support that would be expected if group support was a key factor.
In addition, while this study was well-designed, it comes from a single institution. Further study is needed to support these results.
What This Means for You
Yoga can be tailored to people of all fitness levels, including those who have not exercised before. Its benefits include reducing fatigue and inflammation, as well as improving the quality of sleep. The breathing and meditative components may also be beneficial.
As with any exercise program, it’s important to work with your doctor to determine the level of activity right for you. Yoga instructors should be able to help modify poses to match your abilities.
Living Beyond Breast Cancer hosts “Yoga on the Steps” educational and fundraising events for people affected by breast cancer in Denver, Philadelphia and Kansas City, Mo., each year. For more information about these events, visit yogaonthesteps.org.
To learn more about the health and wellness benefits of yoga, check out our Guide to Understanding Yoga and Breast Cancer
Kiecolt-Glaser, JK, Bennett, JM, Andridge, R, et al. Yoga’s impact on inflammation, mood, and fatigue in breast cancer survivors: A randomized controlled trial. JCO. 2013; doi:10.1200/JCO.2013.51.8860