Breast Cancer and Physical Activity: How Exercise May Help

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles | January 27, 2016

According to the NIH National Cancer Institute, 1 in 8 women today has a chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer at some point during her life. Once a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, her risk of a subsequent breast cancer diagnosis is higher compared to the general population. These are scary statistics, but if you or a loved one have had the tragic experience of dealing with breast cancer, you know the real thing is a lot scarier than numbers on a page. That's why breast cancer prevention is crucial in the lives of women everywhere, contributing heavily to our quality of life and survival.

What can women do to decrease their risk of getting breast cancer? While there are well documented behaviors that help decrease this risk, such as smoking cessation, maintaining a healthy weight, decreasing alcohol consumption and eating healthy, one common behavior continues to be overlooked: exercise.

Frequency, Duration and Intensity

Numerous studies in recent years have looked at the relationship between breast cancer risk and regular exercise and found an inverse relationship. The World Health Organization (WHO) 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 also reported that physical activity after diagnosis reduces a woman's risk of mortality by 50 to 53 percent compared to women who do not exercise. Exercise recommendations include a combination of both aerobic exercise and strength training.

For cancer prevention, the American Cancer Society recommends engaging in 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week. Examples of effective physical activity include brisk walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, tennis, golf (without a cart!) and group aerobic classes. I suggest focusing on what you enjoy doing and making it fun. There are also indoor activities when the weather makes it difficult to be outdoors. Think about walking around the mall, exploring a new area of your city or a park, or downloading or renting an exercise video. I highly recommend including a community walk or run at least once per year so that you have a goal to work toward. There are countless 5K’s, triathlons and swim-a-thons for charity so you can feel even better about working out!

When it comes to strength training, it's best to follow recommendations from a physician and a qualified personal trainer on the appropriate levels of weights and proper technique to avoid injury. This is especially important during the period after treatment or surgery, so as to not interfere with the healing process.

The relationship between exercise and cancer risk is clear. Whether you know someone who was diagnosed with breast cancer, it runs in your family, or you just want to live a healthier life, it's important to make exercise a regular part of your daily routine. Make it a priority, keep eating healthy, and remember to set goals that are enjoyable, effective and sustainable – you'll be glad you did!

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles's profile picture

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles

Jenn Giles, R.D., C.S.S.D. is all about health and wellness. She has over 15 years’ experience, including a dual master’s degree in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Columbia University. She is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She supplements all of this with her spin instructor certification and USATriathlon Level I Coach Certification.

Jennifer is passionate about (actually, obsessed with) the sport of triathlon. She has been personally participating in triathlons since 2000 and running road races since 1992. She is a two-time Ironman finisher and has completed countless numerous marathons. She has been a member of Power Bar Team Elite since 2006 and competed as a member of the 2006 Aquaphor/ Sponsored Athlete Team. She was ranked as USAT All American Honorable mention in 2006 and 2011. Jennifer does all of this along side of her husband, Patrick, who is an equally accomplished triathlete and runner. They try as hard as they can to do all of their training and racing together.

She will tell you, however, that her most important, most rewarding and most challenging job is as a mother of four. She knows first hand the challenges of maintaining optimal fitness, overall good health and achieving goals while raising a family - of which good nutrition is the cornerstone.

Most importantly, she knows how to motivate, inspire and challenge athletes based on their own abilities, strengths and everyday lifestyles. She believes there is an athlete in everyone - no matter what their abilities are – and if those abilities are manifold, then there is an even better athlete in there!

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