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Study: Yoga May Reduce the Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

July 25, 2017

If you’re working on mastering the Child’s Pose or the Bharadvaja's Twist, it may bode well for your health, according to one recent study.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and published in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, and Physics, found that yoga may lessen the side effects associated with prostate cancer treatment.

The study involved 50 patients, 22 of whom were in the yoga group and 28 of whom were in the non-yoga group and served as a control for the study. What made the study unique is that all of the patients were male, had prostate cancer and underwent between six and nine weeks of external beam radiation therapy. Those who already practiced yoga, had advanced cancer or who had undergone previous radiation treatment weren’t eligible to participate in the study.

The yoga group attended a structured, 75-minute yoga class twice a week, which featured five minutes of breathing and centering exercises, five minutes of doing one of the most popular yoga positions, Savasana, and various periods of modified sitting, standing and reclining positions. The non-yoga group did not participate in these exercises.

Through self-reported questionnaires, researchers found yoga participants had less fatigue after beginning to practice yoga. They also reported less fatigue over time as they participated in more classes. However, the non-yoga group reported more fatigue as they went through prostate cancer treatment.

The yoga group also reported less sexual dysfunction (such as erectile dysfunction) compared to the non-yoga group. Their scores in this category remained unchanged during the study, while the non-yoga group’s scores declined. This is important because prostate cancer treatment often has adverse side effects on sexual health — up to 85 percent of radiation therapy patients report dealing with erectile dysfunction during treatment, the study’s authors said.

The study also found the yoga group experienced greater emotional and physical well-being than the non-yoga group. On the whole, the study’s findings aren’t that surprising. Many studies have been published about the benefits of yoga for female cancer patients and meta-analyses have found reductions in fatigue & stress, improvements in sleep quality, general mood, overall quality of life, depression, anxiety and Gl symptoms. A review of 13 previous studies found that yoga has several benefits for survivors’ well-being, and other studies have indicated yoga may reduce cancer-related fatigue in women with breast cancer.

This research falls in line with the positive impact that we already know exercise has in general on overall emotional and physical health. Several studies also have shown yoga can help with chronic lower back pain, reduce heart rate and blood pressure and help people better cope with mood disorders.

The researchers said yoga’s impact on strengthening parts of the body may account for why those who participated in it had fewer side effects during treatment.

“Yoga is known to strengthen pelvic floor muscles, which is one of several postulated theories that may explain why this group did not demonstrate declining scores, as seen in the control group,” said Neha Vapiwala, the study’s principal investigator and an associate professor of radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. “That may also explain the yoga patients’ improved urinary function scores, another finding of this trial.”

In addition to treatments like radiation therapy and chemotherapy, the mind-body side of cancer treatment also is important. That’s why we offer yoga classes through our Cancer Support Community. The classes take place several times a week and are tailored to the needs of each participant. We also offer laughter yoga, which helps patients improve their breathing, learn how to better manage stress and boost their creativity. All these classes serve as complementary approaches to other conventional medical treatments we undertake to help patients fight cancer, but we often hear from patients how much yoga helps them from an emotional, physical and even spiritual perspective throughout their cancer journey.

This study further highlights how important exercise is — even in a modified way — for people who undergo cancer treatment. The side effects of treatment sometimes can be as grueling as the treatment itself, so whatever approaches we can find to help patients could be beneficial to their long-term success and potentially improve the odds of remission.

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