According to the NIH National Cancer Institute, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point during their lifespan. Additionally, Nameer Mardini, MD, MPH, clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, says once a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, her risk of a separate breast cancer diagnosis is higher compared to the general population. Therefore, breast cancer prevention plays a key role in the survival and livelihood of many women.
Women can take many steps toward a healthier lifestyle to decrease their risk of breast cancer and many other chronic diseases through smoking cessation, maintaining a healthy weight, eating nutritious foods and decreasing alcohol consumption, states Mardini. One overlooked method to reduce the risk of breast cancer for both women with a previous diagnosis and healthy individuals is regular exercise.
Numerous studies have looked at the relationship between exercise and breast cancer risk, most of which found an inverse relation. World Health Organization guidelines state that engaging in moderate to intense physical activity three to five times a week reduces breast cancer risk by 20 to 40 percent. Several studies have reported that physical activity after diagnosis reduces a woman's risk of dying from breast cancer by 50 to 53 percent compared to inactive women. Authors of these studies suggest that women do both aerobic exercise and strength training when medically appropriate to receive maximum benefit from their physical activity.
Exercise: Duration and Activity
For cancer prevention, the American Cancer Society recommends engaging in 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week. Remember, being physically active does not have to involve spandex and a gym. Walking at a brisk pace around the neighborhood or at a local park is a great way to get aerobic exercise. If the weather is not cooperating, most malls open their doors before the shops open; this is a free indoor alternative. Additionally, there are numerous walk-a-thons to participate in — often for a special cause or charity — local fitness classes or aerobic videos that can be done in the privacy of one's home, and most public libraries have a big video collection to checkout for free. Another place to look for free workout videos is the Internet.
When it comes to strength training, it's best to follow recommendations from a physician on the appropriate levels of physical activity, especially during the recovery period after treatment. A referral to a physical therapist or certified sports medicine professional may be recommended.
Mardini recommends stretching exercises and meditation such as yoga and Tai Chi. He recommends more intense exercises such as Pilates for those who are able. Yoga builds body strength, increases flexibility, reduces fatigue and decreases depression. Affordable yoga instructions and videos can be found at the local library, YouTube and mobile apps, as well as through local classes at YMCAs, gyms and yoga studios.
Exercise plays an important role in preventing cancer in women, whether previously diagnosed or not. For maximum benefit, it is best to incorporate both aerobic and anaerobic — running, swimming or biking along with calisthenics, yoga or Pilates — workouts in a weekly 150-minute regime. Remember, it is not important whether a person runs, walks or bikes, what is most important is establishing a healthy activity routine that is enjoyable and sustainable.
Reviewed by Sharon Denny, MS, RDN