Beneficial Effects of Exercise on Breast Cancer

By Jonathan Sims, MD

Did you know that women can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer with exercise? Study after study shows that women who are physically active reduce their risk for breast cancer. Studies also validate that women who develop breast cancer reduce their risk of recurrence after treatment by starting an exercise program.

How much can exercise help women’s risk of breast cancer?

Dr. Jonathan Sims from RAPC Talking about breast cancer in Men

Dr. Jonathan Sims from RAPC

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) examined hundreds of studies between exercise and the risk of developing cancer or dying from cancer. ACSM reports that modest levels of activity reduce the relative risk of developing breast cancer by 10%-20%.

The biggest reduction in risk for breast cancer comes from vigorous aerobic exercise for 75-to-150 minutes weekly. Women reduce their risk of death from breast cancer by an astonishing 40% to 50%.

And the good news about exercise continues. Not only does physical activity reduce the incidence of breast cancer, but exercise also reduces the risk of colorectal and uterine cancers too.

If you’re a breast cancer survivor, 3-to-5 hours of moderate exercise (walking at a moderate pace) reduces the risk of recurrence by as much as 40-50%. Reducing recurrence lowers mortality rates by a similar percentage. Walking at a slower pace and lower distances infer protection against recurrences. Don’t let age, weight, or comorbidities prevent you from exercising at your own pace.

How much and what kinds of exercise?

Most experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise every week. These recommendations require only a modest investment of time and energy to gain substantial results.

Women can mix-and-match their exercises. It’s best to do a combination of exercises to benefit the entire body. They can be broken down into 10-minute increments.

Moderate. Moderate exercise is defined as still being able to carry on a conversation. Examples include:

  • Bicycling at less than 10 miles an hour
  • Canoeing
  • Dancing
  • Gardening (trimming, weeding, raking)
  • Golfing, without a cart
  • Tennis (doubles)
  • Water aerobics
  • Walking at a brisk pace — a 15-minute mile

Vigorous. Vigorous activity is defined as not being able to carry on a conversation but being able to say a few words.

  • Aerobics
  • Basketball
  • Bicycling at over 10 miles an hour
  • Running or jogging — at about 5 miles an hour
  • Swimming freestyle laps
  • Tennis (singles)
  • Walking very fast — at about 4 ½ miles per hour
  • Yard work — pruning, digging

There are many good smartphone fitness apps, either free or low-cost. These apps help calculate distance and speed, learn yoga, and study the safe way to execute specific exercises.

Most experts suggest incorporating strength training into your exercise program. Lifting weights and resistance bands are easy to use at home. Strength training builds muscles and increases metabolism.

Exercise improves balance to help prevent falls during treatment. Some chemotherapy drugs are associated with loss of balance that can lead to dangerous falls.

Get moving. Even if you choose not to exercise, get up from your chair every hour, and walk around. Park at the rear of the parking lot instead of the spot nearest the entrance. Use the stairs instead of the elevator.

Are there other benefits from exercise for breast cancer patients or survivors?

Exercise is a powerful tool to fight anxiety, depression, and stress if you are a breast cancer patient or survivor.

Did you know?

  • 58% of women with breast cancer experience depression. Some studies show that patients who are older or who live in more rural areas may be more prone to developing depression. However, every woman experiences trauma from the diagnosis — caused by the diagnosis’s effects on self-image and sexual relationships.
  • 80% of women diagnosed with breast cancer experience PTSD symptoms. Even a year after diagnosis, over half of breast cancer patients are still experiencing PTSD symptoms.
  • 32% of breast cancer patients develop General Anxiety Disorder. General anxiety disorder may be debilitating. General anxiety disorder (GAD) means that a patient cannot control their worry over half of the time. GAD is long-lasting, persisting for six months or more. The individual symptoms are often severe — hyperventilation, persistent insomnia, feeling panicked, or doomed.

The good news for breast cancer patients is that exercise profoundly positive effect on anxiety, depression, and stress.

Oncologists believe in the power of exercise for their patients. Many recommend that exercise be incorporated into breast cancer patients’ treatment plans. It doesn’t matter whether a woman hasn’t been active before her diagnosis. Age doesn’t matter either – women in the 70s and even 80s benefit from becoming more active.

Exercise helps relieve the symptoms of many emotional upheavals experienced during breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

  • Anxiety. Anxiety is that “tightness in the chest” feeling — that sense of dread of facing another chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Anxiety can be triggered by fear. Patients fear side effects like nausea and vomiting or hair loss. Patients experience anxiety about their upcoming mammograms or scans — the fear of recurrence triggers a phenomenon called “scanxiety.”
  • Depression. Depression is a combination of feelings, from down and blue to feeling hopeless, irritable, or numb. Depression expresses itself in physical acts like crying, withdrawal from friends and family, or lack of motivation. Depression may cause a lack of concentration, memory problems, and problems focusing — these problems may impact a patient’s performance at work. Depression is a contributing factor when breast cancer patients feel fatigued.
  • Insomnia. Being physically active helps all cancer patients go to sleep more easily and stay asleep through the night.

How can you get started being more active?

Talk to your doctor to be sure that exercise is safe and appropriate for you. Patients recovering from surgery might need extra time to recover before starting an exercise program physically.

Ask if there is an exercise program associated with your cancer center. Check with your local YMCA after treatment and ask if they offer the LIVESTRONG program. Being active increases every person’s quality of life.

Exercise — helps reduce the risk for breast cancer, aids in the relief of physiological effects during treatment, and reduces the risk of recurrence.