Breast Cancer and Exercise: What are the Barriers?


A recent on-line, national survey completed in Australia asked women who had completed treatment for breast cancer to answer questions about exercise. 432 women were surveyed about their perceived exercise barriers as well as potential benefits. Although the answers may not be entirely surprising to practitioners who work with women who are participating in cancer rehabilitation, we may be able to learn about ways to support women who are interested in increasing their exercise activities. Women reported challenges of feeling weak, lacking self-discipline, and not making exercise a priority as barriers to exercising. Women also reported enjoying exercising, having improved sense of well-being, and decreased tension and stress when participating in exercise. The authors in this study describe the potential physical benefits of exercise in survivors of breast cancer to include improved cardiorespiratory fitness, strength, energy levels, more effective weight management, and decrease in risk of heart and circulatory disease. Further benefits towards emotional and psychological health are also described in the study and include improved self-esteem, decreased anxiety and depression, and better mood.

With all of these known benefits, what limits exercise participation in women? Consider that a woman who is already dealing with cancer-related fatigue has a small reserve of extra energy. If she participates in exercise, will she have enough energy to prepare healthy foods, or to finish her work, or to interact with her family? Even though the exercises may in the long run increase a woman's energy levels, understanding the choices that she has to make on any given day can help guide the therapist's recommendations. How can you help a patient avoid procrastination, one of the largest perceived barriers to exercise in this study? Perhaps you can help her trouble-shoot the obstacles that she may face in her day and give examples of actions that can set her up for success. These strategies might include preparing her exercise clothing to bring with her for a lunch time walk, or taking a nap at work so that she has enough energy to exercise in the evenings. Engaging a friend to join her for exercise activities or helping her find a comfortable bra- one of the commonly mentioned barriers in the referenced study- may help a woman participate in exercise.

Many pelvic rehabilitation providers are working with women who are dealing with the challenging recovery associated with oncology issues such as breast cancer. Although women may know that exercise is beneficial, the barriers to exercise can limit participation in lifelong healthy habits such as daily exercise. Regardless of the type of cancer a woman is woman is recovering from, being able to dialog about perceived barriers to exercise is valuable. If you are interested in working with more women who are recovering from cancer, or in general would like to know more about exercise and oncology issues, the Institute has an oncology series with topics in breast cancer and pelvic cancer, among others.

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