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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
Updated On: March 01, 2023
A breast cancer diagnosis can make it feel as though the world is ending. The thought of treatment and potential outcomes can be both overwhelming and terrifying to process. For many women, even thinking about potentially being diagnosed with breast cancer is enough to put a pit in their stomachs.
And that's understandable. However, rather than stress about what may come tomorrow, let's turn our attention to actionable habits that can help us today.
Exercise has long been known to be amazing for improving virtually every health variable. And when it comes to breast cancer, exercise not only lowers your risk of diagnosis, but it also improves one's quality of life during and after treatment.
This article will show how regular exercise significantly mitigates your risk of breast cancer.
In addition, we'll cover:
Breast cancer can affect anyone, even men. However, women make up the vast majority of breast cancer diagnoses. And some women have a higher risk than others.
There are a number of risk factors that increase your risk. Some are caused by genetics, which we cannot control, while others are due to lifestyle choices.
Genetic factors are things we have no control over. These factors were passed down to us when we were born. While you can not change your genetics, it's still crucial that you know where you stand, as you may be at higher risk than others. Remember, though, knowledge is power. If you know you're at higher risk, you can come up with a screening plan with your doctor to ensure if you do get breast cancer, you'll catch it early.
But even if your genetics indicate you're at higher risk, research shows that healthy living habits play a significant role in breast cancer prevention. Large reviews have concluded that only 5-10% of all cancer diagnoses are related to genetic factors¹. Regarding breast cancer, its estimated genetic variables only account for 15% of cases.
While there's some debate around these numbers, the takeaway here is that your genetics are not the end-all-be-all. It means that your lifestyle behaviors (which you can control!) are critical.
Having said that, here are the genetic factors that put you at higher risk of breast cancer.
As mentioned, you can do nothing to change your genetic risk factors. Therefore, we want to focus on the risk factors you do have control over.
Here are modifiable risk factors that increase your risk of breast cancer:
Some of these risk factors are easier to avoid than others. For example, the use of birth control and hormonal treatment may be necessary.
Exercise, on the other hand, is completely controllable. We'll talk more about this later.
We need to be clear that none of the above factors necessarily cause breast cancer to develop. Rather, they help accelerate the true cause of breast cancer, which is gene mutation. Our bodies have various genes that regulate the turnover of cells. This is the body's way of replenishing dying cells and replacing them with healthy cells.
This constant process results in the turnover of 1% of the body's cells daily. Under normal circumstances, this is a smooth process that replaces one new cell for every dead cell. It's done in an orderly fashion and results in healthy, normal tissue.
However, due to various factors, these genes can mutate. Mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene are the most common cause of genetic-caused cancer. The genes are tumor suppressor genes and help repair or discard DNA errors during cell cycling.
When mutated, these mistakes in DNA are allowed to be replicated, resulting in many sick cells. These cells eventually build up and create tumors.
Other gene mutations include:
Another factor that can cause a mutation is an increase in uncontrolled estrogen. Many tumors are hormone receptor-positive, meaning that the presence of estrogen increases their growth. When there is a rise in estrogen, women's breasts become an area of increased cancer risk.
As mentioned above, approximately 15% of breast cancer cases are related to genetics, while the rest are likely due to lifestyle and environmental causes. The exact mechanisms aren't fully understood, so researchers are unable to say how much is truly preventable.
In other words, while it seems that a large portion of breast cancer development can be controlled with lifestyle choices, that amount is still uncertain. What we do know is that breast cancer is not 100% preventable, meaning women must always be conscious of their breast health and get regular screenings.
However, we want to go over the magnitude that some behaviors have on the development of breast cancer.
As you can see, many of these modifiable risk factors greatly impact your chances of developing breast cancer. In addition, lack of physical activity and exercise play a crucial role.
Exercise (like these best workout splits for women) is one of the best choices you can make to lower your risk not just of breast cancer but all cancer and chronic conditions. A large review found that regular exercise can prevent your breast cancer risk by up to 30-50% with a dose-dependent effect⁶. In other words, some is good, but more is better.
The minimum amount of exercise needed to begin reducing your risk of breast cancer is as little as 1-3 hours a week. However, the optimal amount tends to be 4 hours a week as this provides significant protection against breast cancer while still being a manageable amount of time for most people.
The exact mechanisms that exist between exercise and breast cancer are still unclear, but researchers have a few good theories with emphasis on two specific effects: a decrease in obesity and improved hormone levels.
Obesity is a risk factor for an array of chronic diseases and disorders. When it comes to breast cancer, excess fat increases the rate of hormone-receptor tumors due to the increase in circulating estrogen.
While this seems to be a greater risk for postmenopausal women, this doesn't mean younger women don't need to worry about it, as they will eventually be in this population. Losing fat and building muscle is much easier to do when you're younger.
As mentioned above, one of the major contributors to breast cancer is having excess estrogen in the body. In addition to obesity, this can be caused by an abnormal menstrual cycle and various other hormone imbalances.
One of the effects of exercise is that it helps your body maintain healthy hormone levels while also keeping your cycle regular. As a result, estrogen levels are more likely to stay at a healthy range, thus lowering breast cancer risk.
Another hormone related to breast cancer is insulin-like growth hormone or IGF-1, which has been found to increase cell survival and rapid growth. This can result in a higher prevalence of tumor growth⁷. One of the effects of obesity is increased IGF-1, making it a concern for women and their cancer risk.
Exercise's role in the normalization of hormone levels sheds light on some of the studies that have found that a decrease in breast cancer risk still exists even when habitual exercise doesn't result in weight loss.
Regarding what exercises you should be doing, there doesn't seem to be any specific routine you need to follow. Rather, there are some basic guidelines.
Remember that the effects of exercise come from improved hormones and better body composition rather than one specific exercise. With that in mind, one very important factor to consider is that you need to find a mode of training that you'll stick with.
There is clear evidence that shows that women improve their chances against breast cancer the longer they are involved with a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise. Therefore, if you hate a certain mode of exercise and likely won't stick with it, it's better to find a routine you'll stick with in the long run.
Here are the guidelines for putting together an ideal training routine.
When considering which exercises to include in your training routine, here are the best types of exercise for women to take partake in. Because you should be engaged in both resistance exercise and strength exercise, we will highlight some exercises from both categories.
For cardio, you have a plethora of choices. However, not every exercise is going to be suitable for every body. Therefore, we'll list our favorite forms and briefly review some pros and cons, so you can start experimenting with which works best for you.
With this in mind, while you don't have to, we advise you choose at least 2 modes of exercise, if not more. Not only does this give you better options for different situations, i.e., poor weather or equipment unavailability, but it can also prevent possible overuse injuries while adding variety.
When performing strength training, compound lifts give you the most bang for your buck. They require the most strength and build muscle mass in the smallest amount of time. These movements cause flexion and extension at multiple joints, such as in the overhead press and squats. These allow you to hit multiple muscles at the same time.
Here are some best exercises for you to do.
Remember that exercise does not completely prevent the risk of breast cancer. However, without it, you also greatly increase your risk. After we provide the workout, we'll also include a few more tips to pair with your routine.
That said, here is a great training plan that you can start today. Remember that this routine is what we believe to be the minimal amount of training time you should spend per week, particularly with resistance training.
So start here but also feel free to increase the time you spend if you need to, or as your fitness level increases. As you progress, you can start honing in on specific body parts. Take a look at this shoulder workout, these arm workouts, or these back exercises for additional exercise inspiration.
Without further ado, here's your breast cancer prevention workout.
Session 1 (Cardio):
Session 2 (Resistance Training):
Session 3 (Cardio):
Session 4 (Cardio):
Session 5 (Resistance Training):
When beginning, start slow and with a lighter weight. For the cardio sessions, feel free to swap in the cardio of your choice. Always remember to progressive overload, increasing your weight and intensity as you progress.
Set a goal of eventually being able to perform barbell back squats and pull-ups! We advise getting a qualified trainer if you need as it will definitely be worth it in the long run.
Fitness is just one part of a larger plan to decrease your risk of breast cancer. To fully protect yourself, you need to do as much as you can to live a healthy life.
Here are some other tips to follow.
And as always, ladies, be sure to get a breast screening on a regular basis. Nothing is more important than identifying breast cancer as early as possible!
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February 20, 2024
February 20, 2024
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