Alberta Cancer Foundation

Dr. Jessica McNeil is Studying Lighter-Intensity Physical Activity in Breast Cancer Patients and Survivors

Dr. Jessica McNeil is leading the breast cancer and physical activity level study in Calgary. Photograph by John Gaucher.

Dr. Jessica McNeil, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Research within CancerControl Alberta, has been researching the interplay of sleep, exercise and nutrition on overall health since her days as a graduate student at the University of Ottawa.

Now 30, McNeil has been published in a variety of scientific journals and is currently heading a study that is evaluating the potential integration of lighter-intensity physical activity into the national exercise guidelines for breast cancer patients and survivors.

The Breast Cancer & Physical Activity Level (BC-PAL) Study is assessing the effect of 300 minutes per week of lighter-intensity activity on a group of breast cancer survivors who are not overly physically active in their daily lives. “We’re targeting those individuals who may not be inactive, but have never stepped foot in a gym, have no interest in going to a gym, or maybe just don’t like physical activity or sweating,” says McNeil.

The BC-PAL Study is just in its pilot phase, but McNeil and her team are hoping to eventually see lighter-intensity activities considered as viable alternatives to the current statutes for more vigorous exercise recommended in Canada.

Light-intensity activities, which can span from picking up around the house to golfing or just socializing with friends, aren’t currently recognized by the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines as counting toward the recommended 150 minutes of mid- to high-intensity movement per week for those aged 18 to 64 years.

“Any activity is better than no activity,” says McNeil. “I just want lighter-intensity activity to be recognized as an alternative.”

Her aim with the findings of the BC-PAL Study is to encourage more physical activity born out of what participants may already do day-to-day.

“I find a lot of guidelines are one size fits all, and we have to recognize that, with physical activity, we can’t necessarily take that approach. What may work for one person may not work for another,” says McNeil.

She first became interested in this line of research while examining factors of weight loss and weight gain prevention at the University of Ottawa. When she relocated to Calgary to pursue her post doctorate work, she narrowed her focus to looking at physical activity levels in cancer patients after learning of fellow BC-PAL researcher and current supervisor Dr. Christine Friedenreich’s work.

“Dr. Friedenreich has studied the role of physical activity in cancer prevention, control and survival for over 20 years, and she has led some of the largest exercise trials for cancer prevention,” says McNeil. “I was immediately fascinated by her work in physical activity and the positive results that she and her co-investigators have continuously shown in cancer populations.”

For some doctors, the prospect of working on studies like BC-PAL — studies in which the results can often be inconclusive — is daunting, but McNeil has grown to relish it.

“My supervisor for my master’s and my PhD always told me in a bit of a laughing way, ‘Business is booming in research, you’ll never run out of topics or ideas to study,’ and that really stuck with me because it’s true — there are so many different topics and research areas out there that are worth exploring and require answers,” she says.

When McNeil creates her studies, she uses a certain level of creativity, she says, by bringing technological innovation to traditional approaches to research. For example, the BC-PAL study is currently using wearable activity trackers for its participants, with positive outcomes being reported so far.

“Since we designed the BC-PAL trial to be a home-based intervention, we wanted to provide a readily available tool to participants to collect information on their physical activity time and heart rate values,” she explains. “[The trackers] provide the participants with prompt feedback on their physical activity intensities and heart rates and allow our team to access their data and provide personalized feedback on their progress.”

McNeil is encouraged by the preliminary feedback she has documented from participants. Not only does it show an uptick in overall fitness, but improvements in other health markers as well, including body composition. The BC-PAL Study wraps up this winter, and key findings will be synthesized with the aim of publishing this year.


At a glance

Image from Shutterstock.

The BC-PAL Study examines two randomized exercise groups of breast cancer survivors and their fitness and self-reported quality of life outcomes. One group is undertaking 300 minutes of lighter physical activity per week, while the other is undergoing 150 minutes of higher-intensity physical activity per week, differentiated through heart-rate levels.

The study is proposing that 300 minutes of light-moderate physical activity is on par with 150 moderate-vigorous physical activity minutes, which is the current national recommendation by Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for adults between 18 and 64 years old.

Examples of lighter-intensity physical activity

taking the stairs
golfing (no cart)
picking up around the house

Examples of higher-intensity physical activity

dance classes
cross-country skiing