Get notified of page updates

Study: Is there a link between exercise and memory in breast cancer survivors?

Printer Friendly Page Read the Original Article


At a glance                  Guidelines
Findings               In-depth                
Clinical trials Limitations
Questions for your doctor Resources


This study is about:

Whether exercise helps memory impairment in breast cancer survivors.

Why is this study important?

Breast cancer survivors frequently report experiencing memory impairment, which is linked to depression, anxiety, and fatigue. In this study, the researchers wanted to know how exercise is related to memory impairment, and its effects in breast cancer survivors.

Study findings: 

  1. Breast cancer survivors who exercised more had less fatigue and distress (anxiety, depression, stress, and/or concern about recurrence) and scored better on memory tests.

What does this mean for me?

The researchers propose a model where more exercise leads to less fatigue and distress, which results in less memory impairment for breast cancer survivors. More work needs to be done to confirm the link between exercise and memory impairment.

Exercise provides many health benefits. According to the Centers for Disease Control (), exercise helps people to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, reduce their risk for some cancers, increase their chances of living longer, and strengthen bones and muscles, among other things. Breast cancer survivors experiencing memory impairment and its associated distress and fatigue should talk to their health care providers to see what other things they can do to improve their symptoms.

Posted 8/2/16

Share your thoughts on this XRAYS article by taking our brief survey.


Phillips SM, Lloyd GR, Awick EA, et al. “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. Published online first on July 8rd, 2016.


FORCE receives funding from industry sponsors, including companies that manufacture cancer drugs, tests and devices. All XRAYS articles are written independently of any sponsor and are reviewed by members of our Scientific Advisory Board prior to publication to assure scientific integrity.

This article is relevant for:

People diagnosed with early stage breast cancer

This article is also relevant for:

people with breast cancer

Be part of XRAY:


Study background:

Cancer survivors experience a number of long-term side effects that can range from physical problems to psychological and emotional issues. Researchers previously studied how memory impairment affects anxiety, depression and fatigue in breast cancer survivors. In this study, they looked at how lifestyle choices such as regular exercise affect memory impairment and the symptoms associated with it.

In the July 2016 edition of the journal Psycho-Oncology, Siobhan Phillips and her colleagues from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign published their work about the relationship between exercise and memory impairment.   

Researchers of this study wanted to know:

Can exercise help ease the symptoms associated with memory impairment (fatigue, anxiety, and/or depression) for breast cancer survivors?

Population(s) looked at in the study:

The study followed 1477 women. The women were at least 18-years-old, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, were English speaking, and had completed treatment for their cancer. The majority of the women were white (about 97%) and were diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ () or ( 1 or II) disease.  

When women enrolled in the study they took surveys that evaluated their level of physical activity, distress, fatigue, and memory impairment. They then took the same survey 6 months later. A random subset of the participants wore accelerometers to measure their activity.

Study findings: 

  1. Breast cancer survivors who exercised more had less fatigue and distress (anxiety, depression, stress, and/or concern about recurrence) and scored better on memory tests.
    • Breast cancer survivors who exercised more had higher “exercise self-efficacy” meaning they believed that they would be able to exercise either three or five times each week.
    • Breast cancer survivors who had high exercise efficacy had lower levels of fatigue and distress (depression, concerns about recurrence, perceived stress, anxiety).
    • Breast cancer survivors who had low fatigue and distress scored higher on the Frequency of Forgetting test (which included questions such as where participants had put things, directions, and names), meaning they had less memory impairment than women who had high fatigue and distress.


The study population of this research study was mostly white (about 97%), highly educated and had high annual household income. Because of this, the results of this study may not hold true for all women. Additionally, the researchers only had one follow-up after 6 months. More work should be done to extend this time period.

Memory impairment can also be affected by many factors in addition to exercise, so more work should be done to include diet and other psychosocial factors.

Finally, because this study used participants’ self-reported results, their reporting could be biased. Future studies should be done that include objective measures of functioning (the researchers only looked at the relationships between exercise and anxiety/fatigue, and the relationship between anxiety/fatigue and memory impairment—they did not look at function directly after exercise). Additionally, among women who had less fatigue/anxiety, it was not determined whether that was because they exercised more.


The results of this study suggest that exercise may be beneficial for memory impairment in breast cancer survivors. More work needs to be done to study this relationship; however, breast cancer survivors who are not exercising should work with a health care professional to create an exercise plan, as there are many established benefits to exercising.

Posted 8/2/16

Share your thoughts on this XRAYS article by taking our brief survey.

Expert Guidelines
Expert Guidelines

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network and the American Cancer Society have recommendations for physical activity for cancer survivors:

  • Physical activity and exercise recommendations should be tailored to each person's abilities and preferences. 
  • People should try to engage in some physical activity daily; this may include:
    • taking the stairs.
    • walking more.
  • Each week, people should try to achieve the following: 
    • At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, with an ideal goal of 300 minutes, 75 minutes of vigorous activity or a combination of the two.
    • Two to three sessions of strength/resistance training that include all of the major muscle groups (chest, shoulders, arms, back, core and legs). 
    • Stretch major muscle groups at least two days per week.  
  • Avoid sitting or lying down for long periods and other prolonged sedentary behavior. 

Updated: 03/08/2023

Questions To Ask Your Doctor
Questions To Ask Your Doctor

  • I am a breast cancer survivor. Which type of health care provider can I see for follow up survivorship care?
  • How often and how long should I exercise?
  • Are there any exercises I should avoid?
  • What are other things I can do to help improve anxiety, depression, and/or fatigue after breast cancer?
  • Can you refer me to a personal trainer?

Open Clinical Trials
Open Clinical Trials

The following are studies focused on exercise for people diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Visit our Featured Research Page and Research Search and Enroll Tool to find additional studies enrolling people with, or at high risk for cancer.

Updated: 03/22/2023

Open Clinical Trials
Open Clinical Trials

The following studies are looking at management of side effects: 

Multiple cancers

Breast cancer

Colorectal cancer

Endometrial cancer

Ovarian cancer

  • NCT04533763: Living WELL: A Web-Based Program for Ovarian Cancer Survivors. This studies a group-based and web-delivered tool for ovarian cancer survivors in increasing quality of life and decreasing stress, depressive mood, anxiety, and fatigue across a 12-month period.
  • NCT05047926: Prehabilitation for Advanced Ovarian Cancer Patients. Prehabilitation may improve peri-operative outcomes in patients undergoing cancer surgery. This study will look at structured activity for women undergoing chemotherapy to improve their physical state prior to surgical intervention and thus improve outcomes.


Updated: 02/15/2023

Find Experts
Find Experts

The Livestrong at the YMCA program includes a free 12-week membership and fitness training with certified exercise experts. You can search by zip code for a program near you.  

Updated: 08/18/2023

Who covered this study?

The Chicago Tribune

Exercise linked to fewer memory problems in breast cancer survivors This article rates 4.0 out of 5 stars

Oncology Nurse Advisor

Moderate-to-vigorous exercise improves subjective memory in breast cancer survivors This article rates 3.5 out of 5 stars

US News & World Report

Why breast cancer survivors should exercise This article rates 3.5 out of 5 stars

How we rated the media

Back to XRAY Home