Exercise habits vary among breast cancer survivors, study finds

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For cancer patients, research suggests that exercise offers plenty of benefits for long-term health and with cancer-related side effects. Yet  patients face numerous challenges to meet the aerobic and strength training recommendations.

Now a study provides insights into improving adherence to a supervised exercise program among breast cancer patients, finding that attending an exercise program decreases as chemotherapy sessions increase. Cancer-related symptoms and appointments were among the most common reasons women did not attend the program.

The study was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

The study builds on a growing body of research involving exercise and survivorship. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines now recommend that when cancer survivors are able, they should aim for the same exercise guidelines given to cancer-free adults: 150 minutes of moderate intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise per week, and strength training at least twice per week.

This study expands previous research involving patterns of adherence among cancer patients. Much of the past research was conducted in randomized controlled trials. This study took place in a real-world setting. It involved 68 women with early-stage breast cancer who had already received primary treatment, and were about to receive chemotherapy with or without radiation.

The exercise program consisted of a supervised hour-long aerobic and resistance exercise program three times a week during the treatment, then fewer times for 20 additional weeks. The women were also encouraged to do aerobic exercises at home to work toward 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity.

Overall, about two thirds of the women receiving chemotherapy attended the aerobic sessions, slightly fewer than the women receiving radiation. As women received more chemotherapy doses their attendance decreased.

The average adherence to the resistance exercises ranged from 50 to 56 percent across the treatment. This indicates that there is a need to individualize the resistance prescription to accommodate for the wide variation in physical limitations noted among the women, the authors hypothesize.

Treatment-related illnesses kept about a third of the women from attending the exercise sessions. Appointments and non-treatment related illness were among the other top barriers cited for missing sessions during treatment. Life-related barriers, including work, vacation and transportation issues, were the top barriers cited for missing exercise sessions after treatment.

Overall, the findings suggest a greater need for behavioral support, more flexible gym schedules, or home-based programs during the later chemotherapy treatments to maintain exercise consistency throughout treatment, the study concludes.

This study’s observations may not be generalized to other cancer patients, or even breast cancer patients. The women in this study were highly educated and younger — ages 29 to 77 — than the average woman diagnosed with breast cancer and that could affect adherence.

The study was funded by The BC Cancer Foundation.

For more about staying healthy after treatment and resources, visit AICR’s section for cancer patients and survivors:


Author: Mya Nelson

Mya R. Nelson is at American Institute for Cancer Research, where she writes about the research in the field.

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