In 2017, I made fitness one of my top life priorities. It wasn’t a New Year’s resolution—it was a new life resolution. I decided to take control of my health, and that meant making time to eat well, exercise, and invest in the tools that I needed to succeed, and one of the first things I needed was a good sports bra.
As always with my health and training decisions, I started with research, and the more I read, the more questions I had. Are sports bras important for breast health? I wondered. Did I need to pick one for my specific body type or would anything tight do the trick? Also, I found myself picking out sports bras based on fashion more than which ones actually supported my breasts during runs and cross training. Clearly I needed a better solution.
Over the course of my research, I discovered a few key themes:
Size matters when gravity is working against you. Women with larger breasts need to be extra careful when choosing a sports bra to find one that provides the proper support that your muscles and ligaments can’t provide on their own. Caitlin Hoff, a health and safety investigator for ConsumerSafety.org, explained that the “major chest muscles that are found in both men and women (pectoralis major and pectoralis minor) sit behind the breast, [and] in a woman’s body, you will also find Cooper’s ligaments (suspensory ligaments), which help the breasts maintain shape and structure.” Together, these muscles and ligaments support the breasts, but, Hoff explains, “they aren’t able to control or reduce breast movement during exercise, which is why the added support of a sports bra is necessary to reduce breast pain or discomfort” as well as long-term stretching and weakening of Cooper’s ligaments and the skin of the breasts.
Support needs to happen in many directions. This one applies to everyone, no matter what your cup size. Obviously, a well fitted sports bra won’t dig into your ribs, shoulders, or the tender skin around your breasts, but it’s about more than just comfort. Michelle Norris, a senior researcher of sport and exercise science at the University of Portsmouth recently led a study into exactly how breasts move while a woman is running, and her team uncovered a surprising answer. (Hint: It’s not just up and down). After filming many female study participants running on treadmills, they realized that breast tissue can move up to 15 cm while running, and it moves in all directions—up, down, forward, backward, and side to side, ultimately tracing a figure-eight pattern. When it comes to picking a sports bra, this means that you need to find one that offers good support in every direction so that your breasts remain tucked safely and comfortably against your body at all times.
Fit is doubly important for new mothers. If you’ve recently given birth but still want to exercise, then first of all, good for you! Secondly, wearing the right sports bra is especially important during lactation. Leigh Anne O’Connor is an IBCLC board-certified lactation consultant, and her primary advice for women who are lactating and working out is to avoid tight-fitting sports bras. As the breasts fill and empty, their size can change quite quickly during breastfeeding, so, she explains, “it is advisable that sports bras for lactating people have flexibility in size.” Choosing a bra that’s too tight can lead to milk ducts that become pinched or plugged, which can turn into a breast infection if the blockage persists for too long. To avoid these problems, she suggests exercising without a bra for a while (if your breasts are small enough) or choosing a soft, lightly supportive bra that won’t constrict your breasts, armpits, or torso even when your breasts are at their fullest.
With regard to sports bras and breast implants. Jacob Freiman M.D., a Miami Board Certified Plastic Surgeon believes that ‘Using a sports bra for a few days after surgery is beneficial since it may reduce some swelling. After that, it’s up to the patient whether they want to wear a bra or not understanding that by not supporting the breast, the skin will ultimately stretch causing stretch marks and the breasts to sag. It is in the patients best interest to wear a sports bra during work-outs in order to avoid traumatizing the breast and patients have complained of pain when not using a sports bra most likely because of scar tissue that is tearing during the workout routine.”
Ultimately, choosing a sports bra is about finding the perfect combination of comfort and support—and style is just a bonus. Taking care of your breasts is important at every age, and investing in a good sports bra will help you care for the skin, ligaments, and muscles in and around your breasts for years as you pursue all of your fitness goals.
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