Bra app aims to support good exercise habits

The University of Wollongong has launched a new app to help women choose the correct fitting sports bra, with the aim of encouraging healthier lifestyles, avoiding neck and back pain and reducing the need for breast reduction surgery.

It might not be something that clinicians often bring up with their patients, but the developers of the app have found that ill-fitting bras and uncomfortable breast movement are part of the reason why young women often give up sport, and older women or those with large breasts are reluctant to do enough exercise.

The new app, called Sports Bra and available from the App Store for the iPhone and iPad, has been designed using evidence-based research by Breast Research Australia (BRA), a research centre at the University of Wollongong's Biomechanics Research Laboratory.

Led by sports physiotherapist Deirdre McGhee and professor of biomechanics Julie Steele, BRA studies the biomechanics of breast health and bra design. According to Dr McGhee, it has two arms: one for research and one for education.

The research arm investigates bra design, problems associated with large breasts, and barriers to women being physically active. The education aspect focuses on developing evidence-based educational resources on breast support and bra fit, for both adolescent and adult females.

The pamphlet “Exercise and breast support”, developed in conjunction with Sports Medicine Australia, is available for free from the SMA website and is ideal for clinicians to give their patients to help them choose a correctly fitting sports bra, Dr McGhee said.

It was feedback from physiotherapists and general practitioners, however, that led the team to develop an app. Created by Rodney Davies from Logical Instinct, the app uses step by step instructions combined with clearly labelled photographs and high-speed movies to help users find the right bra for their exercise needs.

Dr McGhee said 15 years of research had uncovered a lot about women, their bras and the reasons why bras can affect their exercise levels and their health.

Major department stores like Myer and David Jones often have trained bra fitters available to customers, as do some of the specialist lingerie stores like Bras N Things, but many women are still reluctant to use these services, particularly teenagers and large-breasted women.

“Our research has found that we can't just solve this problem by saying go and get yourself fitted properly,” Dr McGhee said. “Of the adolescents we've tested, 75 per cent of them had never been fitted and don't want to be, and with adult women we found that 66 per cent usually buy a new bra without the assistance of a professional bra fitter.

“The large-breasted women in particular do not want to be fitted, so a professional bra fitter can not solve this problem. That is why we have moved down an education line to say, we'll teach you how to do it yourself."

Dr McGhee said embarrassment is the main concern for adolescents and larger-breasted women, but even athletic and small-breasted women often wear ill-fitting bras with not enough support for the movement of their breasts when they are exercising.

The app includes a video of an athletic, small-breasted woman who usually wears a fashion bra when she is running. However, as the video shows, the amount of breast bounce while running is quite substantial, but ill-fitting bras also cause women to adjust their movement subconsciously to minimise breast movement, Dr McGhee said.

“In the app, the small-breasted model in the video is a runner, and she runs about five hours a week. She never had any pain when she was running but she came back and said she couldn't believe how different it felt [wearing a proper sports bra]. She said she could move her trunk and arms more freely. Then when she saw the movie, she couldn't believe how much her breasts moved.”

For large-breasted women, minimising breast bounce is “a no-brainer” because of the force exerted due to their breast mass, Dr McGhee said. “What women tend to do is brace – it's like their brain instinctively tries to limit the breast movement and so they will contract their pec muscles.

“In bracing, the women tend to round their shoulders and limit the swing of their arms. It's not a good running style. Women are freer in their arm and trunk movements when their breasts are supported better.”

It can be a vicious cycle for large-breasted women, she said. “Because their breasts are uncomfortable when they exercise, they don't exercise and then they put on weight and their breasts get bigger and then it's even harder to exercise.

“The large-breasted model in the video didn't do much exercise after adolescence. But she never thought of wearing two bras, and I told her she had to. After fitting her, she was able to increase her exercise, she’s now running and she's loving it. Furthermore, in just the eight months since she I fitted her, she has lost 10 kilos. Effective, comfortable breast support can make a big difference to a woman's life.”

For GPs, nurses and physiotherapists with patients with back pain or who need to get more exercise, Dr McGhee recommends that they look at breast support as part of their treatment plan.

“I think clinicians need to assess breast support and bra fit, and if it is a problem, improving it needs to be part of their treatment. Patients need education regarding this. If they want to solve the problem they have sought treatment for, they need to take breast support and bra fit seriously.

“As part of my sports physio care of female athletes and teams, breast support and bra fit is another aspect of the female athlete I assess. A sports bra is another piece of sporting equipment to the female athlete that needs to be managed, just like helmets, shoes and ankle guards. Because it is a sensitive topic however, it is often easier for clinicians to address than coaches."

She said good bra support can make a big difference to the quality of life of women. For example, women who have had breast reduction surgery are recommended a type of bra to wear for the first six weeks after the operation, with the focus on wound care.

“After this time, these women will of course need a new bra as their breast size and shape has changed with the surgery; however, no guidance is given," she said. "It is understandable that these women are not keen to show off their breasts with their scars to a bra fitter in a shop.

“They need a safe place to be guided with breast support and bra fit, so their breasts are supported correctly. This will allow these women to increase their activity levels – with comfortable breasts.

“I'd love it if nurses took this education on board too and added it to their patient care. It should be a standard part of patient care.”

The Sports Bra app is available from iTunes for 99c, and the Android version should be out in a few weeks.

Posted in Allied Health

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