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Few breast cancer survivors meet activity guidelines

Thursday April 18, 2013
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Breast cancer survivors are among the women who could most benefit from regular physical activity, yet few meet national exercise recommendations during the 10 years after being diagnosed, according to a study.

Prior studies and available evidence show a strong association between physical activity and reduced mortality, extended survival and higher quality of life among breast cancer survivors, according to background information in the study, which was published April 10 on the website of the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.

With 2.9 million breast cancer survivors living in the United States and another 80,000 added annually, there is considerable interest in the factors that promote health and well-being among these women, noted investigators with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The researchers followed an ethnically diverse group of 631 breast cancer survivors ages 18 to 64 from New Mexico, Los Angeles County and western Washington for 10 years. Recreational aerobic activity was ascertained for each woman via interviews and questionnaires the year before diagnosis and again two, five and 10 years after enrollment in the study.

Prior to diagnosis, 34% of the women met U.S. guidelines. This percentage remained unchanged two years later. The percentage of women who complied with the activity guidelines increased to 39.5% at five years but dropped to 21.4% at 10 years. Fewer than 8% of the survivors met U.S. physical activity guidelines at all time points in the study.

The researchers based their assessment on U.S. physical activity guidelines that call for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity. Researchers focused on 16 recreational physical activities: fast walking, jogging, running, hiking, aerobics, bicycling, swimming, tennis, golf, skiing, Nordic track, fast dancing, bowling, rowing, horseback riding and light calisthenics.

"The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors exercise for at least 150 minutes per week," Caitlin Mason, PhD, the study’s corresponding author and a postdoctoral research fellow in the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said in a news release. "Most survivors may also benefit from strength training exercises at least two days per week.

"For survivors who have not been previously active, we advise that they gradually work up to these recommendations."

The researchers were surprised by the large drop in activity between five- and 10-year follow-up. After taking into account factors such as age and body size at diagnosis, they found that no other personal characteristics or aspects related to the type of breast cancer or its treatment were significantly associated with the drop in activity between the five- and 10-year reporting periods.

"It seems unlikely that this pattern reflects aging alone given the consistency and magnitude of the trend across all age groups," the authors wrote. "Whether this reflects a cohort effect or a unique aspect of the cancer survivorship experience is unclear."

All of the women were enrolled in the HEAL (Health, Eating, Activity and Lifestyle) Study, which investigates methods to improve breast cancer survival. Senior author Anne McTiernan, PhD, a member of the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutchinson, is principal investigator of the multi-site study.

The authors acknowledge that levels of inactivity may be underestimated because the women included in the study tended to be a bit younger and were less likely to smoke, have advanced disease or have limits to doing physical activity compared with survivors who were not followed for 10 years.

The predictors of physical activity in this population remain poorly understood, according to the authors.

"Our inability to identify many significant predictors of long-term physical activity participation suggests that the factors influencing physical activity behaviors in breast cancer survivors are complex and may differ from those in the general population," the authors wrote.

"Additional consideration of psychosocial factors and issues related to pain management, fatigue and specific treatment effects may help to better understand the unique issues faced by cancer survivors and their impact on physical activity participation."

The study abstract is available at http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/early/2013/04/10/1055-9965.EPI-13-0141.abstract.


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