For breast cancer survivors, group exercise beats personal training for quality of life

Story by Garth Sundem

Study after study has shown that for cancer survivors, exercise is good. But what kind of exercise is best? 

A pilot study led by a Colorado State University researcher hints that group exercise and personal training may lead to similar physical gains, but that a specially designed class for cancer survivors incorporating group-dynamic strategies may increase quality of life beyond that of survivors using personal training alone. Leach has received a $718,000 grant from the American Cancer Society that will dramatically expand the program, and the University of Colorado Cancer Center at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center is one of the sites implementing the program.

Heather Leach
Heather Leach

“Our goal is to make cancer survivors feel like they’re part of a team,” says Heather Leach, assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Health and Exercise Science, and the study’s first author. “We help them work toward a common task, a common goal, versus having an instructor at the front of the room telling people what to do. For example, instead of saying, ‘I’m going to walk three times per week,’ maybe they set a group goal, like, ‘By the end of the intervention, as a group we will have walked 100,000 steps.’”

About the study

The small study, recently published in the journal Oncology Nursing Forum, recruited 26 women with stage I or II breast cancer to receive exercise instruction twice a week for eight weeks. Half of the women received personal training, while half participated in a group dynamics-based exercise class. In measures of vigorous physical activity, chest press and leg press, both groups showed similar, significant improvement. But the women in the group-dynamics class outpaced those in personal training in measures of overall physical activity and, importantly, in measures of quality of life.

“At the end of the day, what’s most important – the number of bench presses you can do or quality of life?” says Steven Schuster, medical director of the UCHealth Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic at the Harmony Campus, and the study’s co-author. “It fits a model of wellness that we really buy into – physical health interacts with emotional health, and also your community of support, including other patients walking on the same journey. They can be part of your wellness too.”

With support from the American Cancer Society, the University of Colorado Cancer Center will integrate Leach’s group dynamics-based exercise intervention into the existing BFitBwell Exercise Program for Cancer Survivors offered at the Anschutz Health and Wellness center in Aurora.

“We hope to confirm the program’s effectiveness, and then moving beyond that, demonstrate cost-effectiveness, and look at how to best implement this in clinics and communities,” Leach says.

Cancer can be a lonely experience. The study seems to show that sharing the experience with a group can be an important part of recovery.