> Ability to Pay Attention May Affect Exercise

Ability to Pay Attention May Affect Exercise


Years after treatment, some young women are less likely to be physically active

Young women who are better able to focus their attention on a task were found to exercise more regularly several years after breast cancer treatment than young women reporting attention difficulties, a study shows. Regular exercise was associated with having a lower body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat.

Background and Goals

Exercise has been shown to support overall health and lower mortality, and may lower the number of deaths related to breast cancer. National guidelines suggest 150 minutes or more of moderate aerobic physical activity weekly, as well as twice weekly strength training and flexibility activities on other days. Only about 25 percent of people treated for breast cancer get that amount of exercise.

Exercise, like many regular tasks, depends on executive function, a person’s ability to pay attention, to plan and successfully complete activity. Executive function has been compared to the conductor of an orchestra, coordinating all the activities of all the musicians. Some people experience problems with multi-tasking, coordinating different activities, thinking, memory and attention after treatment, which can make it more difficult to plan and follow through with exercise. The researchers thought young women experiencing a lesser ability to pay attention might exercise less and have a higher BMI compared with people unaffected by breast cancer.


Women studied were participants in other breast cancer clinical trials. They had been treated for early-stage breast cancer with chemotherapy after surgery.

The women were age 45 or younger and had finished breast cancer treatment 3 to 8 years before this study. None had experienced recurrence, the return of breast cancer.

The researchers focused on young women because they tend to have a harder time paying attention, and worse physical and social effects after treatment than do older women.

Each woman suggested three other women who did not have cancer and who were

  • close in age to herself
  • of similar race to herself
  • of similar education to herself

These healthy women were called “acquaintance controls,” ACs, and could not be the participant’s personal friends. The researchers compared the ACs to the women with breast cancer to see how they differed in attention and exercise.

Participants and ACs responded to mailed surveys looking at fatigue, attention, depression and anxiety.

Exercise was defined as having regularly performed, over the past 3 months:

  • energetic racquet sports
  • other sports involving running
  • biking
  • swimming
  • walking
  • running or jogging in a physical activity program


There were 505 young women with breast cancer and 404 ACs included in the study.

Compared with ACs, the women who had breast cancer reported significantly worse ability to pay attention, more symptoms of depression and more fatigue.

  • Those who had better ability to pay attention and less fatigue were more likely to have exercised regularly in the past 3 months.
  • Those who were currently married, had higher education and had regularly exercised in the past 3 months were more likely to have a lower BMI.

Income also had an effect. Women with incomes of less than $30,000 and $30,000 to $75,000 reported poorer attention and more anxiety, depression and fatigue than those with incomes of greater than $75,000.

After adjusting for anxiety, depression and fatigue, the researchers found that better ability to pay attention made a woman more likely to regularly exercise.


The researchers said the results should be confirmed in a long-term study. This study also used self-reported information, which can be flawed, and might underreport light-to-moderate exercise. The women studied were also very similar: mostly white and of a “higher socioeconomic class,” the researchers said.

What This Means For You

You may want to exercise more regularly, but have a hard time because of school, job or family responsibilities. This study suggests that planning and completing exercise can be hard for some people after breast cancer treatment. If you’ve had problems keeping your attention focused, that may be affecting your ability to be active as often as you’d like. You might want to use a calendar or reminder system to help you plan exercise. It also appears that women who exercise have better ability to pay attention.

Exercising more often can have great benefits after breast cancer treatment. Our Guide to Understanding Yoga and Breast Cancer may help, as can this information on how to bring exercise into your daily routine.

Pradhan, KR, Stump, TE, Monaghan, P, and Champion, V. Relationships Among Attention Function, Exercise, and Body Mass Index: a Comparison Between Young Breast Cancer Survivors and Acquaintance Controls. Psycho-Oncology 2015; doi: 10.1002/pon.3598.