Exercise Eases Memory Problems in Women Treated for Breast Cancer

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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 study found that women treated for breast cancer who did more moderate-to-vigorous exercise reported fewer memory problems.

The research was published online on July 8, 2016 by the journal Psycho-Oncology. Read the abstract of “Relationship between self-reported and objectively measured physical activity and subjective memory impairment in breast cancer survivors: role of self-efficacy, fatigue and distress.”

In the study, 1,477 women who had been treated for breast cancer filled out questionnaires about:

  • how much they exercised
  • how self-confident they felt (called “self efficacy” by the researchers)
  • how depressed they felt
  • how much they worried about recurrence (the cancer coming back)
  • how stressed they felt
  • how anxious they were
  • their levels of fatigue
  • how they rated their memory function

The women filled out the questionnaires twice: once just before the study started and again 6 months later when the study ended.

A random sample of 362 women in the study were selected to wear an accelerometer during the study. An accelerometer is a device that measures how fast something is moving.

In both groups -- those who self-reported physical activity and those who wore the accelerometer -- women who did more moderate or vigorous physical activity reported fewer memory problems.

Moderate to vigorous physical activity included:

  • brisk walking
  • biking
  • jogging
  • aerobic exercise class

Women who did more physical activity also had:

  • more self confidence
  • less stress and anxiety
  • less fatigue

All of the above factors also are linked to better memory function.

While this study looked for an association between exercise, memory issues, and stress and fatigue, 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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