Physically active women have a lot to consider when it comes to choosing the right sports bra, including support level, compression or encapsulation, strap width, and material. A survey conducted by the University of Portsmouth’s Research Group in Breast Health has revealed that one out of every five women say their breasts are what prevent them from making it to the gym.

“This latest research is crucial because it shows that breasts are an important factor to consider when investigating what deters women from exercising,” lead researcher Emma Burnett said in a statement. “One third of women in the study were not meeting physical activity guidelines, but improving breast health awareness may help to encourage participation for these women. We had plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that breasts are a barrier to exercise but this is the first study to provide evidence that they’re affecting women’s participation in sport.

Burnett and her colleagues surveyed 239 women from Portsmouth, Southampton, and the surrounding area in the United Kingdom regarding what would prevent them from taking part in physical activity. Seventeen percent of women participating in the survey cited breasts as their reason for not making it the gym. Breasts ranked fourth among barriers that discouraged women from participating in physical activity after lack of energy, time constraints, and health reasons.

In terms of what it was about their breasts that hindered women from being physically active, most were either unable to find a proper sports bra or were too embarrassed by the movement of their breasts. The research team hopes that their research will encourage bra manufacturers to work with women’s needs when it comes to the proper fitting sports bra. They also hope the study will raise breast health awareness among women, seeing as the study participants who knew more about breast health were more likely to participate in physical activity and were more likely to wear a sports bra.

“I expected the findings to show that breasts are a barrier but I was quite surprised at the percentage – it was higher than I thought,” Burnett added. “Women who aren’t aware of the benefits of wearing a sports bra when exercising are those who exercise in the wrong kind of bra and then experience pain. This pain means they stop exercising, which is a shame because if they knew the difference a good sports bra can make, I’m confident they would have a more positive experience of taking part in physical activity.”

Leader of the Research Group in Breast Health, Professor Joanna Scurr, stressed the importance of wearing a proper fitting sports bra to help reduce a woman’s risk of sustaining damage to the Cooper’s ligament. If breasts are not properly supported during physical activity like running, the constant up and down motion can result in a permanent stretch of these ligaments that help hold the breasts up. Improper support can also cause tension and strain in the upper back and neck.

“When the breasts are not supported appropriately and there is tension on the ligaments and skin of the breast, it can result in strain and over time this may lead to a stretching of the breasts natural support, which could lead to permanent breast damage,” Scurr explained.

Source: White J, Scurr J, Burnett E. The Influence of the Breast on Physical Activity Participation in Females. Journal of Physical Activity and Health. 2014.