Most Women Don’t Get Enough Exercise After Being Diagnosed

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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 has found that about 65% of women diagnosed with breast cancer don’t meet national exercise recommendations after they’ve been diagnosed, and black women are much less likely to meet exercise recommendations than white women.

The research was published in the July 15, 2014 issue of Cancer. Read the abstract of “Racial differences in physical activity among breast cancer survivors: Implications for breast cancer care.”

This analysis is phase III of the Carolina Breast Cancer Study. The study followed 1,735 women from North Carolina who were diagnosed with breast cancer between 2008 and 2011. The women were between the ages of 20 and 74.

Other studies have suggested that black women are less likely to meet exercise requirements after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Still, many of these studies had very few black women participants. The researchers who did this study made sure to enroll enough black women -- 48% of the women in the study were black -- so the results would have enough statistical power.

The black women in the study were:

  • more likely to be diagnosed before age 50
  • more likely to have stage III or stage IV breast cancer when diagnosed
  • less likely to be treated with hormone therapy

than white women.

When the women were first diagnosed, the researchers interviewed them and asked how much they usually exercised in the 3 months before they were diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as how much they had exercised in the 7 days before they were interviewed:

  • Women who exercised 150 minutes or more per week were considered sufficiently active.
  • Women who exercised 1 to 149 minutes were considered insufficiently active.
  • Women who exercised 0 minutes were considered sedentary.

The researchers conducted follow-up interviews either by phone or by mail every 9 to 12 months for up to 5 years after the first interview.

The researchers classified the women’s pre- and post-diagnosis exercise amounts as:

  • increased, if the women exercised 30 or more minutes more after being diagnosed
  • no change, if the women exercised 29 or fewer minutes more or less after being diagnosed
  • decreased, if the women exercised 30 or more minutes less after being diagnosed

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 only 35% of the women met the current standard of 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week. Almost 60% of the women said the time they exercised went down after they were diagnosed.

Black women were much more likely to be considered insufficiently active or sedentary than white women.

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 Exercise pages.

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