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Breast size affects the way women exercise, study finds

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Ivo Gonzalez for OIS/IOC/Handout via REUTERS
Breast discomfort — the pain caused by excessive movement of the breast while exercising — has a significant effect on the amount and type of exercise that women do.

People cite a variety of well-known reasons for not exercising regularly, including lack of time, lack of motivation, family commitments, injuries and illness.

Many women stay sedentary, however, for a reason that’s received much less attention (although it’s talk about a lot among women): breast discomfort.

Surprisingly little research has been done on this topic. Among the few studies is a 2015 survey of 249 British women. It found that breast-related issues were the fourth greatest barrier to physical activity for women, behind lack of energy and motivation, time constraints and health.

In a new study, published this month in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, researchers have examined the topic more closely. They found that breast discomfort — the pain caused by excessive movement of the breast while exercising — has a significant effect on the amount and type of exercise that women do.

Specifically, the study found that women with large breasts spend almost 40 percent less time exercising than women with smaller breasts.

Study details

For the study, researchers at the Biomechanics Research Laboratory at the University of Wollongong in Australia recruited 355 healthy women. The volunteers ranged in age from 18 to 75 and in body mass from normal through obese.

The women filled out a questionnaire about their physical activity during the previous week. It included questions about the types of activity they did (such as walking, biking, swimming, dancing and gardening), as well as how long and how intensely they did them.

The women were also asked if their breast size had ever influenced the amount or level of physical activity they had done and, if so, what types of activities had been affected.

Then, using a handheld three-dimensional scanner, the volume of each woman’s breasts was measured and categorized as either small, medium, large or hypertrophic (very large).

The researchers then looked for any correlations between breast size and exercise habits.

The findings were striking, but perhaps not surprising to many women. The larger the women’s breasts, the less time they spent exercising, particularly doing vigorous activities that involve excessive “bouncing,” such as running, aerobic classes and dancing.

The time difference was quite significant. Women with very large breasts spent, on average, 37 percent less total time exercising than those with small breasts.

That finding held even after the researchers controlled for age and body mass index (BMI) — two factors that can affect how often and vigorously people exercise.

The women with larger breasts were also much more likely to report that their breast size kept them from being more physically active, even with less vigorous activities, such as walking and swimming. (Interestingly, many of the women with large breasts in the study said they didn’t swim because they couldn’t find comfortable swimsuits.)

Limitations and implications

The study has several limitations. It involved a relatively small number of participants, and all the information about exercise was self-reported.  In addition, more than a quarter of the study’s participants were between the ages of 18 to 24, a group that tends to be more physically active than older women.

Still, the findings offer compelling evidence of the significant effect that breast size can have on women’s exercise habits — and on their health.

“Breast size should be acknowledged as a potential barrier to women participating in physical activity,” the study’s authors write.

Women need more help with finding well-fitting sports bras and with developing strategies that will enable them to participate in all types and intensities of physical activity, no matter what their breast size, the researchers conclude.

FMI: The researchers have developed a website with information about exercise and breast support and tips about buying a sports bra. You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports website.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/13/2019 - 04:00 pm.

    While it’s interesting to see some quantitative analysis attempted in this area, it strikes me as “sun rises in the east” research. That is to say that the general conclusion seems almost painfully obvious. I coached girls’ fast-pitch softball for 15 seasons, watched many hundreds of girls fast-pitch softball games, and my hunch is that any attentive softball coach, regardless of gender, will essentially agree that the conclusion in the headline is a no-brainer.

    While I wrack my brain for non-offensive terms to use, I’ll just venture that it was hard not to notice that girls who were well-endowed in that department swung the bat differently than girls whose figures were more slender, and the two groups of players also ran the bases differently. Even in the days before #MeToo, I made no inquiries among my players about types and brands of sports underwear, so beyond some generalities, I know nothing about what was in common use in the 1980s and 1990s, and know even less about what’s in use now. I assumed then, and assume now, that players are fully capable of talking to each other about what types and brands of gear seem to work best, and provide the necessary support and protection in game and practice situations.

  2. Submitted by Laura Palmer on 03/13/2019 - 06:34 pm.

    Duh! What genius got a grant for this study? Do you really need science to back up what women have been trying to say for years? Oh, and they don’t need help *finding* better fitting sports bras. Manufacturers need help making them!

  3. Submitted by Lisa Byrne on 03/15/2019 - 08:50 pm.

    Not only is finding a good sports bra difficult, but the cost is a real barrier. A quick perusal of Title Nine’s website (this company carries an extensive catalog of sports bras, rated by their support level, to fit cup sizes A – DDD) shows that bras range from $34-$79. The larger the cup size/more support the more expensive the bra.

    Now if you are very active you probably need more then one bra. And the manufacturers will tell you to replace them every 6 -12 months. Not very realistic for many folks.

  4. Submitted by Sonali Korche on 04/19/2020 - 08:00 am.

    bmi calculator for women for your good health.

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