By Carol Nader
Exercise can alleviate the debilitating symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, but succumbing to feelings of weakness and not exercising may worsen the condition, a study has found. More than 60 chronic fatigue syndrome patients were involved in a three-month trial in which about half were given an exercise program and the rest tried relaxation and meditation.
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Karen Wallman, who conducted the trial while doing a doctorate at the University of Western Australia, said at the end of the period the exercise group was able to perform daily tasks with less effort. "Their scores for depression and fatigue were significantly lower," she said. But those in the relaxation group were "more deconditioned, and when you're deconditioned you feel worse".
The study was published in yesterday's Medical Journal of Australia. Chronic fatigue syndrome, which can last for several years, affects thousands of Australians. Sufferers experience exhaustion accompanied by flu-like symptoms. It is most common in people under 45. More than a quarter of sufferers are under 20. Dr Wallman, now a lecturer in exercise physiology at WA's Edith Cowan University, said people with chronic fatigue had good and bad days. "On a good day, people will do everything they can because they want to make up for the days they spent in bed, but then because they've overdone it they tend to have a relapse," she said. "They think they're sick because they did all the exercise and movement."
But CFS/ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) Association of Victoria spokeswoman Melinda Perkins said exercise did not suit everyone. "For some people, a 10-minute walk is too much and makes the symptoms a lot worse," she said. The causes of chronic fatigue are still a mystery. Some claim it is all in the sufferer's head. But Ms Perkins said such attitudes were frustrating. "Why would anyone want to make themselves out to be sick?" she said. "It is a bit of a joke, but some of the symptoms can be so bizarre that it's hard for people to understand that this is a very real illness." The Royal Australasian College of Physicians released guidelines two years ago on how doctors should identify and treat chronic fatigue syndrome. The convener of the group that devised the guidelines, Robert Loblay, said there was no indication that the condition was "a manifestation of a person being a hypochondriac".