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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
October 11, 2022
Women have an approximately 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Breast cancer makes up 30% of new cases in America, with women being diagnosed with breast cancer more frequently than any other cancer.
The good news is despite those statistics, you're not powerless. There are healthy habits you can adopt that will reduce your cancer risk. And the same methods that help reduce your risk also help support recovery, should you ever be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Now ultimately, as with many things in life, no matter what we do, no one can 100% guarantee you'll never receive a breast cancer diagnosis. You can only focus on the things you do have control over.
One of those controllable habits is exercise, which on top of helping reduce your breast cancer risk is great for a myriad of other things, including weight management, disease control, increased energy, and improved mood.
This article will explain why regular exercise should be at the forefront of every woman's breast cancer reduction plan. We'll discuss:
Breast cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the breast. While it can occur in men, it's rare, with about a .1% chance.
This means that the vast majority of breast cancer diagnoses occur in women.
Our bodies are pretty amazing. One of the ways we keep ourselves energized and healthy is through cell replenishment. It occurs so often that about 1% of our cells are replaced daily, with some structures taking longer or shorter to completely replace.
Under normal circumstances, one cell dies and a new cell replaces it. However, cancer occurs when there is a gene mutation, and cell replacement becomes out of control. Cells are rapidly produced in a chaotic manner resulting in tumors.
Some of these tumors are benign. And while they need to be taken care of, they are generally "safe" as the cells are still relatively healthy and do not spread to other tissues.
However, some of these tumors are malignant, meaning cancerous. These tumors contain highly abnormal and sick cells that jump to other organs.
Breast cancer develops when a malignant tumor forms in the breast tissue. Breast cancer usually develops in one of the following areas:
If left unchecked, it can take over healthy tissue and invade the lymph nodes. From here, it can travel to other areas of the body.
Unfortunately, we can never 100% prevent cancer. It can be caused by many risk factors, some we have control over and others we don't. All you can do is focus on the factors you can control.
It's important to realize that cancer always occurs due to gene mutation. Genetics plays a role in approximately 5-10% of cases. If genetics are involved, an increased breast cancer risk can be hard to lower.
Some genetic risk factors include:
Menstrual & Menopause History: Women who have had an unusual history of menstruation and menopause have an increased risk. This includes beginning menstruation before 12 and menopause after 55.
If you have any of these genetic risk factors, your risk of developing breast cancer is higher. But don't let this scare you. You can still be proactive by developing the healthy habits we're discussing in this article, performing regular self-checks, and discussing a routine screening schedule with your doctor.
In addition, rest assured knowing there are organizations like the Breast Cancer Alliance that have made it their mission to improve the overall quality of life and survival rates of those diagnosed with breast cancer.
Through revolutionary research, education, and outreach, organizations such as the Breast Cancer Alliance continue to find ways to better prevent, diagnose, and treat breast cancer. So even if you're at a higher risk or have been diagnosed with breast cancer, know there are organizations in your corner, dedicated to discovering the best prevention, diagnosis, and treatment options.
And the good news here is that genetics aside, the remaining breast cancer risk comes from general aging and lifestyle factors. No matter your breast cancer risk, these are actionable things you can focus on.
Making poor lifestyle choices can put you at a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Alternatively, making sound lifestyle choices can reduce breast cancer risk.
And while it's never too late to adopt healthy habits, the sooner you can implement them, the better. As you start to add exercise and healthy eating into your daily routine, also consider eliminating some other habits that put you at higher risk of developing cancer.
Some non-genetic breast cancers risk factors include:
The expression "exercise is medicine" couldn't be more true.
As we discussed, genetics plays a significant role in whether someone develops breast cancer, and unfortunately, we can't modify our genes to lower our risk. This makes it essential to utilize healthy habits that we do have control over, like exercise.
Adding exercise to your routine is a powerful tool for reducing your breast cancer risk. This can be anything from following a workout split to performing low-impact workouts, to making a staircase workout a part of your routine.
Here is how exercise plays a role in reducing your breast cancer risk.
A woman's weight will ultimately come down to her calorie intake. However, being physically active and partaking in regular exercise is an awesome way to help control calories.
Being physically active burns calories, and on top of that, studies suggest that exercising also helps us make better decisions regarding our diet, which makes sense. After putting in the work on a tough assault bike workout, a healthy high protein meal will probably sound more appealing than a greasy burger and fries.
In addition, a study looked at the connection between exercise and breast cancer, finding that regular exercise provides a reduced risk of breast cancer¹. The study attributed this effect to exercise lowering one's overall body fat and improving body mass index.
A meta-analysis found a direct link connecting the number of hours women spend exercising with lower breast cancer risk².
Pre-menopausal women who exercise 1-3 hours a week have a 30% decrease in their risk of breast cancer. Bump that up to 4+ hours of exercise, and it jumps to a 50% decrease in breast cancer risk.
The exact reasoning for why this is the case is unknown but may be due to regular exercise's effect on maintaining a healthy ovarian cycle and weight. If this sounds like a lot of exercise, we promise you'll be surprised at how quickly your weekly minutes add up. This can be anything from a brisk walk with your dog to LISS cardio, low-impact swimming, or an at-home workout in the comfort of your living room.
Similar findings are seen in postmenopausal women as well. A large review found a correlation between the amount of exercise older women performed weekly and their risk of breast cancer³. More exercise = Less risk.
While there is a connection between a healthy weight and a reduced risk of breast cancer, researchers did observe that exercise decreases a woman's chance of developing breast cancer, regardless of weight.
In other words, the protective mechanisms exercise offers are still produced, no matter your weight.
Keep in mind you will have an even lower breast cancer risk the closer you get to a healthy weight, meaning that prioritizing healthy eating, like these high-protein low-fat foods, is still important (good foods will also maximize your workout efforts!). But don't think exercise won't work its magic for you just because you may be labeled as being overweight.
Any amount of regular exercise will help reduce your breast cancer risk. However, more is better.
For example, a study found that women who had a long history of exercising (4 hours a week for 12 years) were almost 50% less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than those who didn't⁴.
And if exercise isn't a regular part of your routine yet, don't let this discourage you. You can start today! One of these best workout splits for women may be perfect for you.
As seen, exercise plays an important role in breast cancer risk reduction. Unfortunately, it's not 100%. Nothing is.
Even if you have exercised your entire life, there's still a chance you'll develop breast cancer. This means you will be faced with a period of breast cancer treatment and recovery. Stay strong!
Even though you may have been diagnosed, the fight is just beginning, and exercise is one of your best weapons when paired with proper treatment.
If you regularly exercised before your diagnosis, you have a much better chance of beating breast cancer compared to if you weren't regularly working out. This benefit is true for just about any ailment, as exercise makes our bodies stronger and more resilient⁵.
Some improved outcomes that exercise has been shown to provide women with breast cancer include:
Even more important, those who exercise significantly lower their risk of death. Research shows that regular exercise leads to a 24–67% reduction in the risk of total deaths, and a 50–53% reduction in the risk of breast cancer deaths.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis followed by treatment and recovery is stressful, to say the least. The treatments and procedures combined with general uncertainty can lead to depression.
Regular exercise combats this. Exercise is known to cause a boost in mood in all populations. That in itself sounds like reason enough to get going on a recumbent bike workout! But if you need even more incentive, research shows this mood boost occurs in breast cancer survivors as well⁶.
Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer can maintain a better mood and less anxiety when they regularly exercise.
When you exercise, it's important to include both strength training and aerobic exercise to maximize your benefits. Unfortunately, no specific guidelines have been given to address exactly what this looks like.
However, we can look at general suggestions and make some conclusions. For example, World Cancer Research Fund Prevention Guidelines for Breast Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease prescribes 30 minutes of activity every day⁷. This equals 3.5 hours a week.
This is similar to several studies, which show a significant improvement at 3.8-4 hours or 240 minutes of weekly exercise.
Further, the American College of Sports Medicine prescribes 150 minutes of moderate cardio every week to decrease all causes of mortality. And every extra 180 exercise minutes results in 3% less risk of breast cancer⁷.
Therefore, at a minimum, we suggest the following exercise regimen to prevent and fight breast cancer.
And remember, adding any type of physical activity while maintaining a healthy weight will dramatically decrease your cancer risk. If you don't know where to begin, start slow with regular walks, and then hire a personal trainer if needed.
Multiple studies cited in this article show there is one modifiable risk factor that trumps any sort of exercise routine. Research shows that women who experience significant weight gain during their adult life (greater than 17%) do not see the same benefits as other women.
To be clear, this does not necessarily mean larger women are more at risk if they stay at a stable weight. This refers to women who put on a significant amount of weight.
This seems to suggest that at some point, the negative effects of excessive weight gain are larger than the positive effects of exercise. This is why it's vital for you not to look at exercise in solidarity but rather, as one piece of the healthy living puzzle.
When exercise is described as a "lifestyle", it can be a bit odd. After all, how can doing squats be considered a lifestyle?
There are so many facets of our life that we can modify to improve our health. A quick list includes:
Each one of these can uniquely affect your life and well-being, as well as each other. For example, getting poor sleep causes an increase in fat gain, while being involved in regular exercise improves sleep. Alternatively, neglecting sunshine can decrease our mood, which causes unhealthy food choices.
We could go on, but you get the idea. Therefore, look at exercise as a leg of a "fitness table". You need all the legs for optimum function. Missing just one leg drastically reduces the table's stability, but you can still use it. Miss two legs and things start to get a lot more unstable.
This means that while exercise is vital, it won't outweigh the negative effects of neglecting other healthy habits. This is why your best breast cancer prevention plan is following an all-around healthy lifestyle.
Remember that exercise does not replace treatment. Rather, it should be done in unison, working with your team of specialists. In addition, it's crucial to be proactive.
Per the National Cancer Institute, women should perform a self-breast cancer screening at least once a month as early detection will always increase your odds of survival. And the American Cancer Society recommends regular breast cancer screenings beginning at age 45.
Remember, when you combine regular exercise with a healthy diet and good sleep, you put yourself at much greater odds of preventing and recovering from breast cancer.
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