Simple steps make breast cancer survivors eager to exercise

Simple steps, like giving breast cancer survivors an exercise workbook or step pedometer, can improve their quality of life and fatigue levels.

In research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, University of Alberta researchers found that those simple steps, along with a recommendation to exercise, helped breast cancer survivors exercise more than survivors who were only given a recommendation to exercise. More activity led to improvements in quality of life and energy levels.

Finding ways to help cancer patients and survivors be more physically active is important because the evidence is growing that exercise can improve quality of life both during and after treatment and may reduce the risk of the disease coming back. Translating these findings into action is the challenge.

"People want to help themselves, but we need to find practical ways to support them beyond telling them what to do. In this study, offering these women simple, low cost tools helped them get active and led to important benefits," said Jeffrey Vallance, Ph.D., a researcher with the Alberta Cancer Board, and lead author of the paper. The work was conducted while Vallance was a doctoral student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

The study followed 377 breast cancer survivors for 12 weeks. All study participants received a recommendation to perform 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity at least five days a week. In addition, some women received a step pedometer, a printed exercise guidebook designed to promote physical activity in breast cancer survivors, or both the pedometer and the guide.

Participants who used either the guide or the pedometer, or both reported significantly higher activity levels than those who received only a recommendation to exercise. Activity levels were measured by measured by an increase in brisk walking and other moderate intensity activities. Levels increased by an average of 70 to 90 minutes per week in the groups using the tools compared with only 30 minutes per week in the recommendation-only group. Fatigue, a common problem reported by breast cancer survivors, was lower in the groups using the pedometer, the guidebook, or both. Overall, women who were more active reported a better quality of life.

Previous research has found that maintaining a healthy body weight is associated with reducing the risks of dying from breast cancer or having it recur. Exercise is a key component of maintaining that healthy weight.

"We are excited about the results. At a cost of less than $20 for either the book or pedometer, this is a promising way to help potentially thousands of cancer patients and survivors," said Kerry Courneya, PhD, a professor and Canada Research Chaifr in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at University of Alberta, and the senior author on the study. The study also demonstrated a strong demand among breast cancer survivors for these types of interventions to help them be more active. "We originally had planned to enrol 300 women in the study, but ended up including 377 and turning away another 310," said Vallance.

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