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Dr. Catherine Sabiston, McGill University – Post-Cancer Health

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Catherine Sabistion of McGill University examines how readjusting goals about physical fitness can increase health in cancer survivors.

Catherine Sabiston is an associate professor of exercise psychology at McGill University in Montreal. Her research is focused primarily on the link between indicators of emotional wellbeing and physical activity motivation and behavior. Her studies target individuals who are most at-risk for low levels of physical activity, including women, individuals with chronic disease, and youth. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia.

About Dr. Sabiston

Dr. Catherine Sabiston – Post-Cancer Health

It is known that physical activity improves physical, emotional, and social well-being among cancer survivors. In spite of these health-related benefits, few cancer survivors are involved in regular physical activity. There’s also a new buzz that suggests that sedentary or sitting time leads to its own health problem. And even though little is currently known about how exactly being sedentary affects physical and mental health, cancer survivors are known to be more sedentary than healthy individuals.

Our study looked at goal adjustment capacities as they relate to physical activity and sedentary behaviour in cancer survivors. Breast cancer diagnosis and treatment may constrain goal-related physical activities and/or reduce the likelihood of achieving goals – which could in turn lead to poorer physical and mental health. We sampled 200 women who had completed treatment for breast cancer. We asked them to complete a survey right after the end of their treatment and then again three months later. We wanted  to see if the exercise and sitting behaviours they reported after treatment related to their mood and physical health over this period. We looked at both goal disengagement (which is when an individual’s ability to reduce effort and commitment from the pursuit of an unattainable goal) and goal reengagement (when an individual is able to identify and pursue adaptive alternative goals).

We thought that if breast cancer survivors found themselves confronting unattainable activity goals and were unable to adjust their goals this might lead to an increase in emotional and physical health problems. We also thought that those who were better able to adjust their goals would be more physically active and less sedentary. And that this, in turn, would be related to reduced levels of emotional distress and fewer physical health problems.

We found that women who were able to disengage from old goals and reengage in new goals were less sedentary and this also led to positive mood three months later. We also found that women who were able to reengage in new goals reported higher levels of physical activity, and that these higher levels of activity were related to better moods and to decreased symptoms of physical ill-health.  

Based on this research we suggest that in order to help breast cancer survivors be less sedentary and become more physically active it is essential for them to be able to adjust their goals after treatment.Helping breast cancer survivors set appropriate and meaningful exercise goals, and helping them both to self-monitor and disengage when other goals become unachievable is a promising way to increase healthy behaviours and improve their physical and mental health.

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