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New research shows physical activity can improve caregivers' well-being

Participants in Colleen Cuthbert's RECHARGE study exercise in Kinesiology's Thrive Centre.

We all know physical activity improves physical fitness and psychological health, can help prevent disease, and enhances our overall well-being. Little research exists, however, on its benefits to family caregiver populations. So recent PhD graduate Colleen Cuthbert, together with co-supervisors Nicole Culos-Reed (Kinesiology) and Dianne Tapp (Nursing), set out to understand what difference physical activity could make, if any, to family caregivers.

Traditionally, support has focused on education about self-care or on counselling. “Research over the last 30 years has demonstrated that family caregivers — that is, family or friends providing unpaid care to a loved one with illness — are at increased risk for a myriad of physical and psychological health problems as a direct result of being in the caregiver role,” explains Cuthbert, an RN and nurse practitioner who completed her doctorate this year.

Cuthbert wanted to know if physical activity would be an effective support for caregivers

“They participate in healthy behaviours, such as physical activity, less often than non-caregivers. I wanted to know if a physical activity program might be another type of support that was effective for improving their health and well-being.”

In the first randomized controlled trial where a physical activity program was delivered to cancer family caregivers, Cuthbert’s RECHARGE trial (renewing caregiver health and well-being) included 77 people. Participants were enrolled either in a physical activity program which included regular exercise classes as well as  education about self-care and physical activity behaviour, or in a no-exercise control group. Outcomes measurements included participant-reported outcomes such as quality of life and mental well-being, levels of physical fitness, and face-to-face interviews.

Results show benefits for family caregivers

Results were positive. “The intervention improved caregivers’ physical activity levels, their physical fitness and their mental well-being,” Cuthbert says. Caregivers also reported they perceived the intervention as beneficial in a number of ways: being in a group with other caregivers provided a sense of camaraderie, they felt acknowledged and supported as caregivers, they felt better able to cope, and they had fun.

“The invaluable contribution of family caregivers to the health-care system and to societies, and the need to support them, is increasingly being recognized,” says Dianne Tapp, dean, Faculty of Nursing. “The results from the RECHARGE trial demonstrate that physical activity programs may be an important type of support for family caregivers.”

The RECHARGE trial was conducted through Culos-Reed’s Health and Wellness Lab and the Thrive Centre in the Faculty of Kinesiology.