Exercising is Fun with Phone Support

Breast cancer patients exercise more often with encouraging calls from a counselor

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) It's easier to be active when there's someone to keep you in line. Some cancer patients can stay on track with the help of a phone buddy.

Breast cancer patients who received advice and counseling over the phone from a counselor increased their level of physical activity, a published study found.

The findings suggest over-the-phone counseling can promote more engaging exercise routines among cancer patients, according to these researchers.

Patients who received this type of counseling were more than twice as likely to report improved fitness.

"Find a buddy to exercise with."

Bernardine Pinto, PhD, from Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, and W. Alpert Medical School at Brown University, led an investigation looking at whether three months of telephone counseling promoting physical activity could influence cancer patients to exercise.

"I think that consistent progress is mandatory for people to stay inspired with their workouts, regardless of what condition they are in," James Crowell, owner and head trainer of Integrated Fitness in Pittsburgh, told dailyRx News.

"When somebody has a trainer or doctor to talk to on a regular basis, assuming that their trainer or doctor is good, they will have a stronger belief that their hard work is producing results," Crowell said.

The study included 192 women who completed treatments for breast cancer. The women averaged 60 years of age and were in different stages of cancer.

Participants were recruited through their oncologists and surgeons. At the start of the study, participants engaged in less than 30 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise or 90 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week.

The participants were also required to be able to walk unassisted, have access to a phone and have completed treatment for their cancer less than five years before the start of the study.

A little more than half the participants received telephone counseling from a counselor supporting them to engage in physical activity for six months.

These participants received in-person instructions on how to both monitor their heart rate and work out at a moderately intense level.

Calls to the physical activity group were sent once a week during the first four weeks, biweekly for the next eight weeks and once a month during the last three months.

The rest of the participants received weekly and biweekly phone calls monitoring their health conditions. None of the phone conversations discussed physical activity.

At the start of the intervention, inactive patients in the exercise group were told to get physically active for at least 10 minutes twice a week.

The exercise amount was gradually increased over the course of the study to 30 minutes a day for at least five days a week.

During the over-the-phone counseling, counselors focused on motivating patients and improving their confidence in their ability to exercise.

The patients also discussed their physical activity from the previous week, any health problems, barriers to exercise and future goals.

Patients' physical functioning and level of fatigue and motivation were measured at the start of the study and three, six and 12 months later.

The researchers found that telephone counseling impacted moderately intense physical activity for three and six months after the start of the study. Patients who received counseling had engaged in 30 minutes a week of physical activity.

Patients who received this counseling were more than twice as likely to report improved fitness and had exercised at least 150 minutes per week at three and six months.

Phone calls that encouraged physical activity were more effective in motivating participants to be active at each follow-up appointment compared to calls that simply monitored health, according to researchers.

At the same time, fatigue levels were similar between both groups of participants. Physical functioning improvements made by the exercise group did not remain significant past three months.

"I am a big believer that a great support system is a hugely powerful and positive motivator for people. If the trainer or doctor on the phone is passionate and well trained, I would expect to see very positive results with their clients' activity levels," Crowell said.

"While we cannot be sure that [counselors'] advice alone would suffice...our results suggest that the [counselors'] advice will require supplementation to support the adoption and maintenance of physical activity in this patient population," the researchers wrote in their report. "There is scope for examining whether this type of intervention can be implemented in large healthcare systems where cancer patients are monitored for follow-up care.

The authors noted they were not sure whether counselors provided additional exercise advice beyond the phone calls during the patients' follow-up visits, which might have skewed the results.

The level of physical activity was also self-reported by the patients, who were all willing to take part in the study. This may also have affected results.

The study, funded by the American Cancer Society and Rays of Hope, was published in the June 2013 issue of the journal Health Psychology.

Review Date: 
June 20, 2013
Last Updated:
August 12, 2013