With Pilates still enjoying widespread popularity, certain doctors are encouraged that this training method may benefit women during breast cancer recovery and survival. Research shows that physical activity helps breast cancer survivors improve quality of life (QOL), mood, fatigue, body image and fitness. A team of medical doctors and surgeons, a psychologist, physical therapists, nurse educators and Pilates instructors from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, conducted a pilot study to evaluate the feasibility of doing Pilates exercises after mastectomy.

A preliminary study of 15 women, aged 33–65, who had been treated with mastectomy for breast cancer within the year and who were not regular Pilates participants, showed that participating in a 12-week structured mat Pilates program led to physical and psychological improvements. The study was small and did not include a control group, but its multidisciplinary design could serve as a model for a larger randomized, controlled trial.

While participants did experience improvements in shoulder and neck movements and in QOL, mood and body image, study authors were concerned by the fact that certain women developed a tendency toward lymphedema (arm swelling). Without a control group, however, it could not be determined whether this was caused by Pilates practice or simply by the passage of time following mastectomy.

Lead study author Daniela L. Stan, MD, from the Breast Diagnostic Clinic at the Mayo Clinic, said, “These findings are encouraging and we hope that investigators will continue this area of research to produce larger studies of Pilates versus a control (preferably with an active intervention) group. These types of studies are essential in confirming any benefits—but also to warn against any side effects—of this fitness method that seems to be growing in popularity in the general population and also with breast cancer survivors.” The study was published in Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing (2012; 16 [2], 131–41).