Better sleep for breast cancer survivors starts with physical activity

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Better sleep for breast cancer survivors starts with physical activity

Laura Rogers, M.D., M.P.H., FACSM |  Oct. 17, 2017

Ah, a good night’s sleep is so sweet. Don’t you just wish you could save some of that feeling for when you haven’t slept well? This, of course, isn’t possible so experts recommend planning ahead so that what you do during the day will help you sleep better at night. Getting enough physical activity earlier in the day may be one of those things. But, what if you have had cancer and haven’t slept as well since your diagnosis and treatment? Can physical activity help, even then? The answer is yes, based on a recent scientific study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. In this study, breast cancer survivors receiving a three-month physical activity intervention reported better overall sleep quality at the end of the intervention and three months later.

How important is sleeping well for cancer survivors?

Many cancer survivors have trouble sleeping well after their cancer diagnosis and treatment. Although this may improve over time, some cancer survivors struggle with trouble sleeping for months, or even years, after their diagnosis. This reduces their quality of life, worsens fatigue and depression, and increases risk of health problems. We don’t know for sure if sleeping well improves a cancer survivor’s chance of long term survival, but we do know that sleeping better is associated with living longer when measured in the general population.

What is physical activity?

Physical activity can be any movement that increases the number of calories your body burns. Although most people typically think of physical activity as walking on a treadmill, swimming laps, or going for a run, physical activity can include other activities such as gardening, walking your dog, parking further from the door, taking the stairs, etc. Our recent study focused on walking, because it is the form of physical activity most commonly preferred by cancer survivors. However, other studies have demonstrated yoga as another type of physical activity scientifically proven to help cancer survivors sleep better.

What will be your next step?  

The intervention reported in the study also involved support from research staff and other cancer survivors—so choosing activities that connect you socially and help you feel less alone may help, too. The bottom line is that your good night’s sleep starts earlier in the day, so find a friend or family member and get moving!

Dr. Laura Rogers is a Professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and a Senior Scientist in the UAB Nutrition Obesity Research Center (NORC), Center for Exercise Medicine, and Cancer Control and Population Science Program of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. She is a board certified internal medicine and obesity medicine physician in the UAB Weight Loss Medicine clinic. Her research focuses on exercise promotion and benefits in chronic disease populations, especially cancer survivors.