Counseling by Phone Plus Doctor’s Advice Can Help Survivors Exercise More Regularly

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Regular exercise is an important part of being as healthy as you can be. More and more research is showing that exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back (recurrence) if you’ve been diagnosed, as well as reducing the risk of developing breast cancer if you’ve never been diagnosed.

Still, other research has found that very few women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer meet U.S. national exercise recommendations during the 10 years after diagnosis. So doctors wondered about the best way to motivate survivors to be physically active.

Now a small study suggests that women who got exercise advice from their surgeon or oncologist, followed by 3 months of counseling support via the telephone, were more active than women who got exercise advice and follow-up calls about their general health.

The study was published in the June 2013 issue of Health Psychology. Read the abstract of “A randomized trial to promote physical activity among breast cancer patients.”

The study included 192 women who had been treated for stage I-IV breast cancer. About half the women were younger than 60 and about half the women were older. The researchers recorded how much the women exercised, their ability to function physically, their readiness to be motivated, and their fatigue before the study began, and at 3 months, 6 months, and 1 year after the study started.

After all the women were given exercise advice by their oncologist or surgeon – including advice to exercise moderately at least 30 minutes most days -- the researchers randomly divided them into two groups:

  • One group got eight phone calls during 3 months from counselors who asked about and supported their exercise efforts.
  • The other group also got eight phone calls during 3 months, but the calls focused on the women’s general health.

The researchers found that the women in the exercise counseling group reported 30 more minutes of exercise per week and were almost twice as likely to meet national exercise recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

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 increasing 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 section.

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