Starting at age 14, Katherine Bice used to wear three sports bras when exercising because it was the only way she felt comfortable. Her breasts bounced around a lot, and after just a few minutes, she was in pain. As a result, Bice felt odd, different, and uncomfortable in her own skin.
Years later, unfortunately this scenario remains all-too-common. A study from the University of Portsmouth in England that was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that about half of all girls at UK secondary schools might be avoiding sports because of embarrassment or pain caused by their breasts. As if that wasn’t enough, most of the girls had no idea if their bra fit, what kind of bra to wear, and how to avoid breast pain while exercising.
Lest you think this issue is unique to the Brits, nearly half of American youths aged 12-21 years old aren’t vigorously active on a regular basis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Inactivity is more common among females than males.
Granted, these low numbers could be due to a variety of reasons. The odds are, however, that the importance of a fitted bra and not knowing how to alleviate breast pain are major factors.
And there are lasting repercussions. The Portsmouth study’s lead researcher was quoted as saying that previous studies of adult women have repeatedly shown that the same concerns are directly responsible for women no longer participating in sports or exercise.
The health implications of women and girls avoiding exercise are clear, making this a significant issue. If we could increase the rate of exercise simply by informing girls and women about how to be more comfortable with the right bras, it seems the benefits could be real.
The Portsmouth group’s research showed that using the appropriate sports bra reduces breast pain for most women regardless of breast size. Many women aren’t aware that their bra doesn’t fit. Many are under the misconception that if they have big breasts, they can’t exercise, or can’t exercise without pain.
It’s not just a matter of comfort. “Excessive breast movement with the forces of running and jumping can damage the ligaments (Cooper’s ligaments) that support the breast, which can result in breast sagging,” says Dr. Kendra McCamey, a family medicine physician and primary care sports medicine director at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Stretching of these ligaments and sagging breasts naturally occur with age, but the forces from intense exercise and bouncing breasts can accelerate this process.” The ligaments are fragile, and the damage could be irreparable.
Even though Bice worked in the lingerie industry for a few years, she wasn’t fitted properly until age 23. She left the company to work at a small specialty shop in Chicago, where they had all sizes for all women – a breakthrough. “With the right engineering, correct fabric strength, correct seaming and stitching, all I had to do was wear one bra,” says Bice.
What was really mind blowing was that this Chicago shop had many bras in her size. Bice realized that there were other women built just like her. This led to Bice starting her own store, La Lingerie, to help other women change their perspective about their bodies.
Bice disagrees with the general statistic of 80 percent of women wearing the wrong bra size. She thinks it’s more like 90-95 percent. “If you have not been fitted at a specialty shop, you’re in the wrong size,” she says.
Bice has learned to look for quality rather than quantity, and this might mean being willing to pay a bit more. She wants women to know that you can find support and feel comfortable while exercising. You do have to be willing to pay for quality and get fit properly, she says. Instead of layering on the sports bras, buy one good quality bra. “It’s hard enough to get to the gym,” says Bice. “Don’t let your boobs stand in the way!” If budget is an issue, she suggests saving $10 each week, and then purchasing the bra in a few months’ time.
Small specialty shops are usually best, says Bice. Our breast/body ratio isn’t XS-XL, but is much more intricate, she explains. She offers other suggestions:
- Find a shop with quality product, all-sized bras, and trained fitters
- Get fitted and then tell your fitter what activities you do so they can find the right support level you need
- Trust your gut when trying on bras. If something feels scratchy or uncomfortable, don’t buy it
- Bounce around in the fitting room! Ensure you feel comfortable in the bra doing the activities that bring you joy
The University of Portsmouth’s Research Group in Breast Health (RGBH) adds that it’s important to regularly replace your sports bra, and how often this occurs depends on a number of factors. The recommendation is to replace it when you replace your running shoes.
To ensure you get the right fit, the RGBH has simple steps to look for:
- Underband: Should fit firmly around the chest and be level all the way around. It shouldn’t slide around as you move and shouldn’t be too tight as to be uncomfortable, affect breathing, or make flesh bulge over the band.
- Cup: Should enclose the breasts without bulging or gaping at the top or sides. If the cup material is puckering, then the cup size is probably too big
- Shoulder straps: Should be adjusted to comfortably provide breast support without being too tight (digging into the skin). The main support for the breast should come from a firm band, not tight shoulder straps
- Underwire: Should follow the natural crease of the breasts and not rest on any breast tissue. If it’s resting too far down the ribcage (where the rib cage gets slightly narrower), the band size is probably too small
Learning more about how to avoid breast pain during exercise and getting the right-sized bra will reap dividends. “It is very empowering for women to feel comfortable in their own skin and in their bodies,” says Bice.