Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity may improve subjective memory among breast cancer survivors. A new study suggests the physical activity alleviates stress and benefits women psychologically.

A surprising finding is that memory problems appear to be related to the high stress cancer survivors experience, and may not be specific to chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

Lead author Siobhan Phillips, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says:

“Our research suggests these self-reported memory problems may be emotionally related. These women are frightened, stressed, fatigued, tapped out emotionally, and have low self-confidence, which can be very mentally taxing and can lead to perceived memory problems.”

More physical activity, the study reports, is associated with higher levels of self-confidence, lower distress, and less fatigue, which in turn is associated with lower levels of perceived memory impairment.

“We found moderate to vigorous physical activity actually benefits women psychologically and that, in turn, helps their memory,” Phillips says.

Breast cancer survivors who did more moderate or vigorous physical activity, including brisk walking, biking, jogging, or an exercise class, had fewer subjective memory problems. Subjective memory is an individual’s perception of memory.

Investigators looked at memory and exercise in breast cancer survivors in two groups: one in self-reported data for 1,477 women across the country; the other in accelerometers worn by 362 women. The findings linking improved memory to higher levels of physical activity were consistent in both.

The work was funded by the National Institute on Aging and the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health.

Phillips, S. M., Lloyd, G. R., Awick, E. A., and McAuley, E. Relationship between self-reported and objectively measured physical activity and subjective memory impairment in breast cancer survivors: role of self-efficacy, fatigue and distress Psycho-Oncology, doi: 10.1002/pon.4156

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