April 15, 2012 -- Exercising may not be at the top of the "to do" list for most women undergoing treatment for breast cancer, but it probably should be, according to a new study.
The new research from the University of Miami finds that regular exercise can reduce depression, lessen fatigue, and improve general quality of life during treatment when combined with group-based behavioral therapy to reduce stress.
The research is not the first to show that physical activity helps breast cancer patients, but it is among the first to show that exercise enhances the benefits of other stress management efforts, says researcher Jamie M. Stagl, MS, who is a doctoral candidate in psychology.
"Women in the study benefited from even moderate activity," Stagl tells WebMD. "You don't have to go to the gym every day, and this is probably not the time to train for a marathon. Just taking a brisk walk or even playing with your kids can boost endorphin levels and make you feel a lot better."
Breast cancer survivor Crystal King knows the power of exercise firsthand.
King took up running within a few months of her breast cancer surgery late in 2003, and she now regularly competes in 5Ks that benefit her employer, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation.
"I exercised at the gym before my diagnosis, but something told me to lace up my sneakers and get outside after my surgery," says King, who is now 34. "I just knew I wouldn't be sad while I was outside running. It also gave me some measure of control, which breast cancer takes away from you."
King didn't always feel up to exercising while undergoing chemotherapy, and she didn't push herself on the days when she felt the worst.
"But on the days when I was on the fence, I was always glad when I got out there because I felt so much better," she says.
The University of Miami researchers conducted their study to find out if physical activity enhances the positive effects of group-based stress management programs for breast cancer patients.
The study included 240 recently diagnosed breast cancer patients who had surgery four to 10 weeks before recruitment.
Half the women took part in a 10-week, group-based behavioral therapy program aimed at reducing stress, while the other half participated in a much less intensive, single-day educational session.
Physical activity, fatigue, depression, and quality of life were all evaluated at study entry and three months later.
The researchers found that women who increased the time they spent engaged in physical activity between the time of surgery and other treatments had less fatigue-related disruptions in everyday activities.
Women in both groups who exercised more also experienced less depression and scored higher on tests measuring quality of life.
The study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, is to be presented next week at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in New Orleans.
Cathy Bryan, MEd, a personal trainer in Seaford, Del., has been working with breast cancer patients for two decades.
She tells WebMD that 20 years ago most women were told to avoid exercising with weights if their breast cancer surgery involved lymph node removal to avoid a condition known as lymphedema.
"The conventional wisdom was that lifting more than 10 pounds was dangerous," she says.
But research Bryan took part in showed that a supervised program of weight lifting was not only safe, but beneficial, following lymph node removal.
She says many of the women in the study ended up exercising more after their diagnosis than before, and almost all derived some benefits from exercise.
Bryan advises working with a trainer who has experience with breast cancer patients, if possible.
"Exercise reduces anxiety and depression," Bryan says. "You also sleep better when you exercise, and the body heals during rest."
It also helps patients regain a sense of control over their lives, King says.
"You lose control over so many things in your life when you have breast cancer," she says. "This is something that you can control."