Regular yoga sessions can help cancer survivors sleep better and have a better quality of life, research suggests.
Those that did two 75 minute sessions a week for just four weeks were less tired and reported better social, physical and emotional wellbeing.
Experts said classes should be offered as part of standard care of those recovering from cancer. They said no other help had shown better results in helping survivors to recover form the toll of cancer and related treatment.
Charities said the findings were “intriguing” and said those recovering from cancer should consider regular yoga sessions.
Researchers from the University of Rochester, in New York, studied 245 women who had been treated for breast cancer, with an average age of 54.
They had experienced any diagnosis of the disease – except metastatic cancer – had completed all standard treatments, and had “persistent sleep disturbance”.
The women were questioned about their energy and pain levels, sleep patterns, social interactions, sex life, mental state and ability to work –before being split in to two groups.
One group of 123 women attended a specially designed course of YOCAS – yoga for cancer survivors – with a qualified instructor, while the others did no yoga at all.
The course included breathing exercises, meditation, and 18 Hatha and restorative yoga postures, some of which required a yoga mat or blanket.
After four weeks, all women were questioned again about their lifestyle, with those who had done yoga reporting better sleep quality, less insomnia and less fatigue.
These three factors were found to have a direct effect on the survivors’ quality of life, the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago heard.
Sleep disturbances typically occur in 30 per cent to 60 per cent of cancer patients and survivors, while up to 90 per cent report regular fatigue.
Tiredness is linked to chemotherapy, as well as the stress and anxiety caused by a diagnosis, or the fear the disease will return.
Scientists measured quality of life, using a symptom inventory scale, in which patients indicated the extend to which they were troubled by such problems.
Yoga participants saw their score improve from an average 3.6 to 2.5 – a 44 per cent improvement.
Those who did not do yoga remained on their average initial score of 3.4.
Lead researcher Dr Anita Peoples, from the University of Rochester, said: “This low to moderate intensity yoga was found to be very beneficial for breast cancer survivors. As yet, nothing has been found that works as well as yoga at improving quality of life among those who have suffered from the disease. It is safe, drug-free and has no side effects. Yoga classes are widely available and easily accessible for many women, and I would certainly encourage them to do it. Evidence-based non-drug treatments should be provided as an integral part of comprehensive cancer care.”
She added: “The exact mechanism through which yoga improves quality of life is not known, but it impacts on the whole body. It strengthens muscles, reduces anxiety and allows those who practice it to do more in their life. I see no reason why yoga would not also benefit people who have suffered from other types of cancer, but that would need to be tested.”
Previous research has found that yoga can help with some forms of arthritis, as well as improving brain function and reducing aches and pains.
Adrienne Betteley, from Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “Many people affected by cancer unfortunately have insomnia and long periods of not sleeping well which is often detrimental to their quality of life. There are many reasons that this might be the case such as worry and anxiety as well as certain medicines used in cancer treatments.”
“I would advise people to consider getting active to help and it makes sense that yoga, which involves gentle stretching and meditation, is helpful in improving sleep disturbance and quality of life as a result.”
Professor Arnie Purushotham, from Cancer Research UK, said: “These encouraging results show that breathing exercises, improved posture and meditation based on mindfulness improved quality of life in breast cancer survivors.
“This may be because of improved sleep and less fatigue which can badly affect people who have been diagnosed and treated for cancer.
“While we need to fully understand how this program benefits patients it could be considered as part of a treatment plan.”