Few Women Exercise Regularly 10 Years After Diagnosis

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Research has shown that exercise (and a healthy diet) can help you feel good both physically and emotionally during and after breast cancer treatment. Studies also suggest that regular exercise can improve survival in women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Unfortunately, a new study suggests that very few women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer meet U.S. national exercise recommendations during the 10 years after diagnosis.

The research was published online on April 10, 2013 by the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. Read the abstract of “Long-term physical activity trends in breast cancer survivors.” Breastcancer.org Professional Advisory Board member Anne McTiernan, M.D., Ph.D., who is director of the Prevention Center at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, was one of the researchers who did the study.

The study followed an ethnically diverse group of 631 breast cancer survivors ages 18 to 64 for 10 years. The researchers interviewed the women and had them fill out questionnaires on how much they exercised at various time periods:

  • the year before diagnosis
  • 2 years after diagnosis
  • 5 years after diagnosis
  • 10 years after diagnosis

U.S. exercise guidelines call for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors exercise for at least 150 minutes per week and says that most survivors would benefit from strength training at least 2 days per week.

The researchers found that the following percentages of women met the U.S. exercise guidelines at the various time points:

  • 34% the year before being diagnosed
  • 34% 2 years after being diagnosed
  • 39.5% 5 years after being diagnosed
  • 21.4% 10 years after being diagnosed

Overall, fewer than 8% of the women met the guidelines at all the time points.

The researchers were surprised by the big drop in exercise between years 5 and 10 post-diagnosis and couldn’t find a reason for the decrease in exercise. It may be that pain, fatigue, or treatment side effects are affecting women’s ability to exercise regularly.

Exercise offers many benefits for breast cancer survivors, but you must make sure to exercise safely. If you’ve had breast cancer surgery, you may be at risk for lymphedema: swelling of the soft tissues of the arm, hand, trunk, or breast that may be accompanied by numbness, discomfort, and sometimes infection.

Some doctors and women are worried that strength training -- lifting weights in particular -- can trigger the onset of lymphedema.

Other doctors and women feel the benefits of exercise done correctly and carefully -- even weight lifting -- far outweigh the risks.

If you’re a breast cancer survivor, it makes sense to do all that you can to improve your quality of life and survival.

If you’ve never exercised before, the first thing to do is to talk to your doctor and possibly a certified fitness trainer about a safe and sensible plan designed specifically for you and your needs and physical abilities. It's also a good idea to talk to your doctor about a healthy weight for your age, height, body type, and activity level.

You may want to start gradually, maybe walking for 15 minutes a day, and then slowly increase the amount of time you spend exercising as well as the intensity level of each session. You may need months to work your way up to 150 minutes a week, but that's OK.

If you're not sure how to start exercising, you might want to visit a gym or make an appointment with a certified personal trainer to learn about different types of exercise. Some people prefer exercising in their homes using videotapes or DVDs. Others find great joy in gardening or building things, as opposed to organized exercise. Some people love being part of a team and playing soccer or baseball. Walking or jogging with a friend is a great way to socialize AND get the benefits of exercise. Dancing to great music is great exercise. With so many different ways to move, you're bound to find a way to exercise that suits your personality and schedule. If you can find one or a mix of exercises that you think are fun and not boring, you'll be much more likely to stick with it.

For more information on types of exercise, how to exercise safely, and how to stick with your exercise plan, visit the Breastcancer.org Exercise pages.

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