It has already been established that physical exercise increases survival and improves quality of life for breast cancer patients. Now a new study finds that most breast cancer patients don’t meet national physical activity guidelines after diagnosis, suggesting more work needs to be done to promote physical activity in patients with this disease.

The study, published in the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) journal Cancer, also found that African American women were less likely to meet the guidelines than white women.

According to the ACS, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, except for skin cancers. About one in eight, or 12 percent of women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetimes. The ACS estimates about 232,670 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in 2014. About 62,570 new cases of carcinoma in situ CIS, will be diagnosed. (CIS is non-invasive and is the earliest form of breast cancer.) About 40,000 women will die from breast cancer this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults engage in moderate-intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes on five or more days of the week, or engage in vigorous-intensity physical activity for at least 20 minutes on three or more days of the week

The ACS recommends that cancer survivors aim to exercise at least 150 minutes per week and include strength training exercises at least two days per week.

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Brionna Hair, a doctoral candidate in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her colleagues set out to determine if there is room for improvement in the physical activity levels of women with breast cancer.

The researchers examined levels of and changes in physical activity following breast cancer diagnosis, overall and by race. The study assessed pre- and post-diagnosis physical activity levels in 1,735 women, aged 20 to 74 years, who were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer between 2008 and 2011 in 44 counties of North Carolina.

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The researchers found that only 35 percent of breast cancer survivors met current physical activity guidelines post-diagnosis. A decrease in activity approximately six months after diagnosis was reported by 59 percent of patients, with the average participant reducing activity by 15 metabolic equivalent hours, which is equivalent to about five hours per week of brisk walking.

When compared with white women, African American women were about 40 percent less likely to meet national physical activity guidelines post-diagnosis, although their reported weekly post-diagnosis physical activity was not significantly different from that of white women (12 versus 14 metabolic equivalent hours). Hair pointed out that it’s important to realize African American women experience higher mortality from breast cancer than other groups in the U.S.

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When contacted by Healthline, Caroline Dalton, senior policy officer at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, a UK breast cancer charity, said, “Physical activity after a breast cancer diagnosis has been shown to improve a patient’s chances of survival, and there is also some evidence it may help to reduce the risk of breast cancer returning. Keeping active may also help patients cope, both during and after treatment, by improving general health and well-being. Although this study was conducted in America rather than the UK, the results suggest women who have received a breast cancer diagnosis need better support to keep active. Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s physical activity tool, BRISK, can help women with suggestions for activities to try.”

Dalton went on to say that although there are currenlty no specific guidelines concerning precisely how much physical activity is needed after a breast cancer diagnosis, Breakthrough Breast Cancer suggests “aiming for 3.5 hours per week, after checking with your treatment team to see what is appropriate for you.”

Speaking to Healthline, Otis W. Brawley, M.D., chief medical officer of the ACS, said “With breast cancer, we give women drugs that help them gain weight. Then we do an operation that actually restricts upper body movement and makes it harder to exercise. With these treatments, we start to stack the odds against a woman. There are exercises that women with breast cancer can do and we need to encourage them more to do exercise.”

Jami Fukui, M.D., at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, told Healthline that she is involved in a trial study that is examining whether adding acupuncture to a nutrition education program for weight loss could improve short and long-term weight loss among breast cancer survivors following chemotherapy treatment. Noting that breast cancer patients gain weight because of several factors, including the fact that they are prescribed steroids, aren’t encouraged to exercise, and also have increased mood disorders and depression, Fukui said,“We hypothesize that adding the use of acupuncture to nutritional education will be more effective in helping this group of women to lose weight than nutritional education alone. The impact of this study could provide a powerful tool for weight loss in this population.”

The researchers in the current study, concluded that despite compelling evidence demonstrating the benefits of physical activity after a diagnosis of breast cancer, it is clear that more work needs to be done to promote physical activity in patients with breast cancer, especially among African American women.

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