How a well-fitted sports bra can reduce breast pain

Movement of a woman’s breasts during exercise can range from 4cm during a walk to 15cm when running, researchers have found.

This multi-directional movement can cause breast pain, which affects one in three women, according to a University of Portsmouth study.

Not only can exercising with poorly supported breasts cause pain and sagging, it can cause embarrassment and put women off physical activity.

A survey by the university’s Research Group in Breast Health (RGBH) found that breasts were the fourth biggest barrier to exercise for women, after lack of motivation, time and poor health.

The RGBH uses state-of-the-art imaging technology to analyse breast movement during physical activity, with the aim of improving breast health and bra design.

Professor Joanna Scurr, who heads the RGBH, says exercising with a well-fitted sports bra is just as important as running in the right type of trainers.

“You wouldn’t go running without a decent pair of trainers, so don’t exercise without a sports bra to protect your breasts.

“Regardless of breast size, a well-fitted sports bra can make the world of difference to your workout, as well as your general health and well-being.”

What’s the problem with bras?

Research suggests that most women, perhaps over 70%, wear the wrong bra size, which may result in pain, discomfort and irreversible sagging. Dr Jenny White, from the RGBH, says that women need better advice on getting the right fit. “The most common mistake is to wear the underband too loose and the cup size too small,” she says. “It’s important to advise women on the best fit, rather than using a tape measure to dictate their bra size.”

How common is exercise-related breast pain?

In a survey of 1,285 female runners at the 2012 London Marathon, one in three said they had experienced breast pain. Half of the women (54%) with breast pain said it was brought on by moderate exercise, and 64% said their breasts hurt during vigorous exercise. “Despite these findings, the majority of women did nothing to overcome their pain,” says study lead Dr Nicola Brown, a senior lecturer at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and RGBH member.

Why does exercise cause breast pain?

The exact mechanics are not entirely understood, but it is thought that exercise, especially high-impact exercise such as running or jumping, places tension on the supporting structures of the breast, which can result in pain.

Why do breasts sag?

There are no muscles in the breast. The only supporting structures are the skin and the Coopers ligaments  thin, paper-like tissues that weave throughout the breast and attach to the chest wall. It is thought that sagging, which is irreversible, occurs when these ligaments are overstretched.

What are the implications for physical activity?

A study of 249 women found that breasts ranked fourth among barriers to physical activity, after lack of motivation, time and poor health. Breast discomfort, breast pain and feeling self-conscious about their breasts were some of the reasons almost one in five women gave for not exercising or changing the type of exercise they did. Choosing a well-fitted sports bra may help to increase levels of physical activity among women.

How do breasts move during exercise?

The breast has limited natural support, and any unsupported movement causes the breasts to move: up-down, in-out, and side-to-side. This multi-directional movement has been shown to increase from 4cm during walking to 15cm during running in a study of women exercising without a bra. Breast motion is not only an issue for larger-breasted women. "A good sports bra for A cup-sized women will reduce breast movement by 53% when compared to not wearing a bra," says Dr Brown.

What’s the importance of a well-fitted bra?

Whether it’s for exercise or not, a correctly fitting and supportive bra can alleviate breast pain, and help to prevent back and neck pain, as well as irreversible breast sag. Wearing a well-fitted bra may also potentially reduce the need for breast reduction surgery. “It can also help women to look and feel their best,” says Dr Brown. 

Should bras be age-specific?

Research shows that younger breasts tend to move up and down during exercise, whereas mature breasts tend to move evenly in all directions. Dr Debbie Risius, from the RGBH, says this has implications for bra design. "Most current bras are designed for young breasts," she says. Her research suggests the need for sports bras designed specifically for women aged over 45.

Which sports bra is right for me?

There are three types of sports bra: compression (pushing the breast against the chest), encapsulation (lifting and separating each breast) and the third style is a combination of both. Not every bra suits every person and wearing the wrong size or style can reduce support. Dr Brown says: “You should always try on a sports bra before you buy it. Jump around in the fitting room to make sure it is giving you the support you need for your chosen activity.”

How often should I replace my sports bra?

It’s important to regularly replace your sports bra to make sure it is still giving you the best support it can. How often you need to replace your bra will depend on a number of factors, including how often you wear it and how often you wash it. The RGBH recommends that you replace your sports bra when you replace your running shoes.

When should I wear a sports bra?

A well-fitted, supportive sports bra is just as important for occasional exercise as it is for regular exercise. It is also important for all types of physical activity, including both low- and high-impact activities, and exercise of short and long duration.

How do I get the right fit?

It’s essential that a sports bra fits properly for it to be effective. The RGBH recommends these simple steps to choosing the right sports bra:

Underband: the band should fit firmly around the chest. It should not slide around as you move, but it should not be too tight as to be uncomfortable, affect breathing or make flesh bulge over the band. The band should be level all the way around the chest.

Cup: the breasts should be enclosed within the cups, with no bulging or gaping at the top or sides. If the cup material is puckering, then the cup size is probably too big.

Shoulder straps: the shoulder straps should be adjusted to comfortably provide breast support without being too tight (i.e. digging into the skin). The main support for the breast should come from a firm band, not tight shoulder straps.

Underwire: for sports bras that are underwired, the underwire should follow the natural crease of the breasts and not rest on any breast tissue. If the underwire is resting too far down the ribcage (i.e. where the rib cage gets slightly narrower), the band size is probably too small.

Page last reviewed: 22/01/2015

Next review due: 22/01/2017


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