Chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers 'can benefit from exercise'

There is now a consensus that CFS, which affects 250,000 in the UK, is real

People who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) can improve their symptoms of exhaustion by reducing their fear that exercise will make their condition worse, researchers have said.

Exercise therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy were shown to be the most effective treatments for CFS, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), in a major trial in 2011. The condition has been subject to controversy in the past. Some doctors once doubted that it existed at all, but there is now a broad consensus that the condition, which affects 250,000 people in the UK and is characterised by extreme exhaustion, is real. However, evidence of the benefits of graded exercise therapy, which involves a gradual increase in physical activity, remains contentious, with some CFS patients saying it brought them no benefit.

The new study, from the same team at Kings College London that carried out the 2011 trial analyses the factors through which the cognitive and exercise therapies proved effective.

They found that “reduction in fear avoidance beliefs” was the main factor – contributing up to 60 per cent of the overall effect of the two therapies.

Professor Trudie Chalder, who led the research, said that the findings only related to how cognitive or exercise therapy could benefit patients – not to how CFS is caused.

Fear that exercise could lead to a worsening of symptoms was an “understandable reaction” to having CFS, researchers said, and some patients have reported that too much exercise too soon does indeed lead to even more extreme exhaustion. The findings are published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal.

Sonya Chowdhury, CEO of the charity Action for ME, said: “This does not mean that ME or CFS is a psychological illness... Nor do we believe that people with ME are afraid of taking part in appropriate activity or exercise – appropriate activity might involve a short walk or, for someone with severe ME, small movements of even sitting up in bed.”

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