Exercise Boosts Cognition, Helps Ease Chemo Brain

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Many women treated for breast cancer say they have problems remembering, thinking, and concentrating during and after treatment. These problems are commonly called “chemo brain” or “chemo fog” -- though women treated with hormonal therapy also complain about memory issues. Doctors call these issues “cognitive impairment” or “cognitive problems.”

Some women may have trouble with:

  • learning new tasks
  • remembering names
  • paying attention and concentrating
  • finding the right words
  • multitasking
  • organizing thoughts
  • making decisions
  • remembering where things are (keys, glasses, etc.)

A small study suggests that an increase in exercise is linked to better cognition in women who had been treated for breast cancer.

The research was published online on Sept. 19, 2017 by the journal Cancer. Read the abstract of “Randomized controlled trial of increasing physical activity on objectively measured and self-reported cognitive functioning among breast cancer survivors: The memory & motion study.”

To do the study, the researchers randomly split 87 women who had been treated for breast cancer into two groups:

  • 43 women were enrolled in a 12-week exercise program that was tailored to each woman’s interests and abilities; the women wore Fitbit One activity monitoring devices
  • 44 women were in the control group that received emails for 12 weeks focusing on women’s health, healthy eating, stress reduction, and general brain health

The women’s average age was 57, and they enrolled in the study between February 2015 and July 2016. On average, it had been about 2.5 years since the women had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Before the study started, all the women in the study wore an accelerometer on their hips for 7 days to measure their physical activity. An accelerometer is a small device that measured how fast the women moved. All the women wore the accelerometer again for the last 7 days of the study so the researchers could compare changes in the amount of moderately intense exercise the women did.

The researchers also measured cognition before the study started and at the end of the 12 weeks. They used a computer-based test from the National Institutes of Health, as well as a survey on cognition that the women filled out. This gave the researchers both an objective measure and a patient-reported measure of cognition.

Women in the exercise group increased their exercise by about 100 minutes a week.

Overall, women in the exercise program had more than double the improvement in cognition processing speed, which measures how fast information can be taken in and used, compared to women in the control group.

Women in the exercise group who had been diagnosed in the past 2 years were 4 times more likely to have improved cognition speed than women in the control group.

Women in the exercise group also had 3 times the improvement in self-reported cognition function than women in the control group.

"The women who participated in the physical activity intervention experienced a significant improvement in cognitive processing speed and some improvements in their perceived mental abilities," said Sheri Hartman, assistant professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California-San Diego and lead author of the study. "This study supports the idea that exercise could be a way to help improve cognition among breast cancer survivors. This is a preliminary study, but it appears that intervening closer to diagnosis may be important to having an impact, and this is the population we may need to target."

While this study looked for an association between exercise and cognitive function, there are many other benefits to regular exercise if you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer:

  • a lower risk of breast cancer coming back (recurrence)
  • easier to maintain a healthy weight
  • more energy
  • better mobility
  • more muscle mass and strength
  • healthy bones
  • better sleep

If you’re busy with work, household chores, and family matters, finding time to exercise almost every day can be hard. Exercising also can be extremely difficult if you’re recovering from breast cancer treatment or having troubling side effects. Still, it’s worth your while to make time to move.

It can help to break up your exercise into 20- or 30-minute sessions that add up to about 5 or more hours per week. Walking is a great way to start. Maybe you walk 30 minutes before going to work and 30 minutes on your lunch break. You can add a few more minutes by parking farther away from your building or taking mass transit. Or you can make plans to walk with a friend after work -- you’re more likely to stick with exercise if someone else is counting on you. Plus, you can socialize at the same time.

Visit the Breastcancer.org Exercise section for tips on how to find the right exercise for you, exercising safely, and how to stick to an exercise routine.


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