Women Not Getting Enough Exercise After Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Breast Cancer News
November 6, 2014
Erin Rowley, Writer and Content Coordinator
Reviewed By: 
Margaret Rinehart Ayres, PT, PhD

Researchers found only about a third of women are exercising enough after being diagnosed with breast cancer. They say women, especially African-Americans, should be given more information from their healthcare teams about the benefits of exercise.

Background and Goals

Research shows exercise improves general health and well-being in people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. It may even extend life.

But people often exercise less after a breast cancer diagnosis. Studies suggest African-American women are less likely than white women to meet recommended levels of exercise, and are more likely to lower their level of exercise, after diagnosis. But many of those studies only involved small groups of African-Americans.


Phase III of the Carolina Breast Cancer Study looked at breast cancer survivorship in 44 counties in eastern and central North Carolina between 2008 and 2011. Women were eligible for the study if they:

  • Spoke English
  • Were recently diagnosed with invasive breast cancer
  • Were 20 to 74 years old

A group of 1,735 women agreed to participate. Of those women, nearly half were African-American. 

The women were interviewed by nurses an average of 6 months after diagnosis. They reported how many minutes a week of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking, vacuuming and gardening) and vigorous exercise (such as running and heavy yard work) they got in the 3 months before their diagnosis and in the week before the interview. The minutes were then added together, with vigorous exercise counting for twice as many minutes as moderate exercise.

Before diagnosis, in line with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendations,

  • Getting 150 minutes or more of exercise each week was “sufficiently active”
  • Getting fewer than 150 minutes each week was “insufficiently active”
  • Getting no exercise was “sedentary”

After diagnosis,

  • Adding 30 minutes or more of exercise each week was “increased”
  • Losing 30 minutes or more of exercise each week was “decreased”
  • Doing within 30 minutes of what was done before diagnosis was “no change”


The study found:

  • 65 percent of all women were “insufficiently active” or “sedentary” after breast cancer diagnosis, up from 39 percent before diagnosis.
  • Fewer African-American than white women got enough exercise before diagnosis.
  • About 60 percent of both African-American and white women reported getting less exercise after diagnosis.
  • Women with higher incomes were more likely to exercise more after diagnosis.
  • About 20 percent of the women added at least 30 minutes of exercise per week after diagnosis.

The African-American women in the study were more likely to:

  • have low income
  • be diagnosed before age 50
  • have stage III or IV breast cancer
  • not be taking hormonal therapy

What This Means for You

When you think about everything you have to do while you’re in treatment for breast cancer, exercise may not be at the top of the list. You may feel too overwhelmed, physically and emotionally, for physical fitness. But exercise may be just what you need – it can improve mood and help you sleep better, among other benefits. Whether or not your doctor brings up physical fitness, talk to him or her about ways to safely, comfortably fit exercise into your care plan. For more information, read our  Guide to Understanding Complementary Therapies and  Guide to Understanding Yoga and Breast Cancer.

For more information about going through breast cancer as an African-American, read  Getting Connected: African-Americans Living Beyond Breast Cancer.

Hair, Brionna Y.; Hayes, Sandi; Tse, Chiu-Kit.  Racial Differences in Physical Activity Among Breast Cancer Survivors.Cancer. Volume 120, Issue 14, pages 2174-2182, July 15 2014; doi: 10.1002/cncr.28630.

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