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Exercise therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome

  • Comment
  • Review
  • Intervention




Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is an illness characterised by persistent medically unexplained fatigue. CFS is a serious health-care problem with a prevalence of up to 3%. Treatment strategies for CFS include psychological, physical and pharmacological interventions.


To investigate the relative effectiveness of exercise therapy and control treatments for CFS.

Search methods

CCDANCTR-Studies and CENTRAL were searched using "Chronic Fatigue" and Exercise. The Journal of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and CFS conferences were handsearched. Experts in the field were contacted. and were searched.

Selection criteria

Only Randomised Controlled Trials (RCT) including participants with a clinical diagnosis of CFS and of any age were included.

Data collection and analysis

The full articles of studies identified were inspected by two reviewers (ME and HMG). Continuous measures of outcome were combined using standardised mean differences. An overall effect size was calculated for each outcome with 95% confidence intervals. One sensitivity analysis was undertaken to test the robustness of the results.

Main results

Nine studies were identified for possible inclusion in this review, and five of those studies were included. At 12 weeks, those receiving exercise therapy were less fatigued than the control participants (SMD -0.77, 95% CIs -1.26 to -0.28). Physical functioning was significantly improved with exercise therapy group (SMD -0.64, CIs -0.96 to -0.33) but there were more dropouts with exercise therapy (RR 1.73, CIs 0.92 to 3.24). Depression was non-significantly improved in the exercise therapy group compared to the control group at 12 weeks (WMD -0.58, 95% CIs -2.08 to 0.92).

Participants receiving exercise therapy were less fatigued than those receiving the antidepressant fluoxetine at 12 weeks (WMD -1.24, 95% CIs -5.31 to 2.83). Participants receiving the combination of the two interventions, exercise + fluoxetine, were less fatigued than those receiving exercise therapy alone at 12 weeks, although again the difference did not reach significance (WMD 3.74, 95% CIs -2.16 to 9.64).

When exercise therapy was combined with patient education, those receiving the combination were less fatigued than those receiving exercise therapy alone at 12 weeks (WMD 0.70, 95% CIs -1.48 to 2.88).

Authors' conclusions

There is encouraging evidence that some patients may benefit from exercise therapy and no evidence that exercise therapy may worsen outcomes on average. However the treatment may be less acceptable to patients than other management approaches, such as rest or pacing. Patients with CFS who are similar to those in these trials should be offered exercise therapy, and their progress monitored Further high quality randomised studies are needed.

Plain language summary

Exercise for chronic fatigue syndrome

Based on five included studies, this systematic review cautiously concludes that exercise therapy is a promising treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome. However, studies of higher quality are needed that involve different patient groups and settings, and that measure additional outcomes such as adverse effects, quality of life and cost effectiveness over longer periods of time.