How To Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer With Exercise

Walking is one of the easiest and most accessible exercises. Consider taking a daily walk with your family to help reduce your risk of breast cancer. Photo: Lee Haywood

Exercise. Love it or hate it, it’s a well-established fact that physical activity helps keep you healthy. When it comes to preventing breast cancer, the potential benefits of exercise are really worth noting. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recently acknowledged this “long list of benefits” in their updated guidelines which strongly recommend exercise (alongside eating a balanced diet and maintaining your optimum body weight) as a breast cancer preventative.

How Exercise Reduces Your Risk of Breast Cancer

  1. Exercise decreases your body fat percentage and helps maintain a healthy weight.
    We all know that regular exercise can help you lose weight and maintain a slim figure. This is important because fat cells in the body store high levels of estrogen, a hormone which is one of the strongest breast cancer risk factors when levels become too high. Please visit our page on obesity and breast cancer for more information on this risk factor.
  2. Exercise decreases the levels of estrogen in your body.
    It is now believed that exercise can modify the pattern of a woman’s menstrual cycle, causing your body to produce less estrogen. This therefore helps to lower your breast cancer risk.
  3. Exercise strengthens your immune system.
    Free radicals are highly reactive, unstable molecules which mutate cells and lead to cancer. Free radicals can, themselves, cause damage to the body but this is counter-balanced by production of antioxidants. Exercise generates free radicals, but when done consistently, exercise also produces a stronger immune system and giving your body a better chance of identifying and destroying breast cancer cells as they begin to form.
  4. Exercise provides a mental benefit and stress relief.
    Exercise impacts directly upon your mood and emotions. Although it is often suggested and under ongoing investigation, a direct relationship between psychological stress and breast cancer has not been proven. However, researchers do believe stress can speed up cancer progression. Certainly, for those undergoing treatment or in the recovery phase, exercise is a fantastic stress-relief to help speed recovery and support treatment.

Studies Linking Exercise to Breast Cancer Prevention

There have been a number of studies conducted which support the theory that exercise can help prevent breast cancer.

A study of 6657 women and 3464 breast cancer patients questioned participants regarding their levels of physical activity when they were 30-49 years old and after age 50. Results showed that participants who exercised regularly in these periods were less likely to be breast cancer patients. Exercise that took place after age 50 seemed to be even more effective, with those who exercised frequently in this period having a lower level of breast cancer occurrence than those who only exercised when they were aged 30-49. The researchers concluded that exercise contributes to breast cancer prevention and staying active in the later half of life, after a woman turns 50, is especially important.

Latest journalCANCER research from the University of North Carolina has proven that you can help lower your breast cancer risk through physical activity without committing to a strenuous exercise regimen. Researchers found that, of 3554 women aged 20-98 surveyed (1504 with breast cancer, 1555 without), those who exercised were less likely to develop breast cancer. The higher the exercise levels, the greater the decrease in breast cancer risk, but the researchers still found that any levels of exercise had a positive effect on reducing breast cancer risk. This correlation was particularly apparent between women who were of reproductive or post-menopausal age, suggesting that this is the age where exercise is especially important to breast cancer prevention.

Younger women (aged 40 and under) have also been shown to benefit from a reduced breast cancer risk thanks to exercise. A University of Southern California School of Medicine study interviewed 545 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer and 545 women without breast cancer, closely matched in terms of age, race and background. It was found that exercise levels from menstruation to one year prior to diagnosis played a significant factor in breast cancer development, with a stronger positive effect for those who had also given birth during that time.

How Much Exercise Is Enough?

You don’t need to an elite athlete to lower your breast cancer risk. As little as 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day has been said to significantly reduce your susceptibility according to one recent study. For those requiring more precise guidance, the ACS have published some very clear and helpful guidelines in relation to exercises for breast cancer prevention:

  • To effectively lower breast cancer risk using exercise, adults should aim for a minimum 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes vigorous-intensity activity spaced out across the week.
  • Ideally, a preventative exercise regimen should begin in childhood with 1 hour of activity per day (preferably vigorous-intensity at least 3 days per week)
  • Moderate-intensity exercise covers physical activity such as a brisk walking, gardening or cycling.
  • Vigorous exercise could include running, fast dance classes, soccer or any other exercise which gets your heart beating and works up a sweat.

Remember, this is one method of breast cancer prevention where every little helps. Just 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking has been shown by the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) to reduce your breast cancer risk by 18%! You can reduce your breast cancer risk even more if you up the exercise to walking 10 hours or more per week. Time to get a dog?