Exercise helps memory and 'chemo brain'

Monday 14 May 2018

A study of women following treatment for breast cancer found that those who undertook moderate to vigorous physical activity reported their memory to be improved.

Memory problems caused by cancer stress, not just ‘chemo brain’

There have been reports for some time about ‘chemo brain’ following treatment, when a person's memory and concentration are affected. Although not confirmed, it was thought that chemotherapy was the culprit.

The surprise finding of the study is that the memory problems the women reported appeared to be related to the ‘high stress load cancer survivors experience’ rather than as a direct result of the chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment they'd had.

There is a direct link between stress, the chemicals our bodies produce as a result and the effect on our ability to think clearly, process information and remember things.

While the exact cause of chemo brain continues to be debated, this study adds to the growing evidence from across all types of cancer: exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve fatigue and help address memory issues.

A weekly nordic walking group run by Maggie's

What exercise could improve memory?

You may think that exercise means going to the gym or running, but the answer is much broader. Exercise can be whatever you can manage and enjoy.

If you enjoy it, you are more likely to do it regularly and gain more benefit. Your exercise may be walking to the local shop or to the other side of the room, doing the housework, some gardening, or some gentle stretching in your chair.

It is important not to overdo it. You can talk with your doctor or specialist nurse about exercise you could benefit from or should perhaps avoid, but as a general rule, exercise shouldn’t hurt or leave you breathless.

You can read the Northwestern University's study 'Exercise improves memory in breast cancer survivors' for more information.

How Maggie's can help

Every Maggie's centre offers a range of physical activity sessions, including walking, Nordic walking, gentle exercise, yoga, tai-chi and gardening.

The sessions are free and run by qualified instructors. We will help you to work out which is the right activity for you.

If you are struggling with managing stress or memory problems as a result of your cancer diagnosis, you may benefit from our Managing Stress course. Find your nearest Maggie's centre, and one of our cancer support specialists will help you find the support you need. You don't need an appointment – just come in.

Blog created July 2016 by Cancer Support Specialist, Robyn Volkers. Updated in December 2023

Last review: Dec 2023 | Next review: Dec 2024

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