Vigorous Exercise Helps Lower Breast Cancer Risk for Both Younger and Older Women

Amy Capetta

A new report from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) states that vigorous exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer in both pre- and post-menopausal women.

The link between vigorous exercise and breast cancer prevention was “a bit of a surprise,” experts say. (Photo: Getty Images)

The results from this comprehensive research — which was comprised of 119 studies, including data on 12 million women and 260,000 cases of breast cancer — also found “strong evidence” that moderate exercise decreases the risk of post-menopausal breast cancer (the most common type of breast cancer).

According to their findings:

  • Pre-menopausal women who were the most physically active had a 17 percent lower risk
  • Post-menopausal women had a 10 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer compared to those who were the least active
  • Women who were moderately active (i.e. walking and gardening) were linked to a 13 percent lower risk when comparing the most active versus the least active women

This scientific study also notes connections between diet and breast cancer risk. The study authors discovered “strong evidence” that drinking the equivalent of a small glass of wine or beer a day (about 10 grams alcohol content) increases pre-menopausal breast cancer risk by 5 percent and post-menopausal breast cancer risk by 9 percent.

And while there is only limited evidence, consuming dairy products, foods high in calcium, and foods containing carotenoids may have the ability to lower risk of some breast cancers. Also, nonstarchy vegetables may lower risk for estrogen-receptor (ER) negative breast cancers (a less common type of tumor, but more challenging to treat).

“Most of the findings were not totally surprising because they basically affirmed the findings from an earlier report, but the vigorous exercise was new and it was a bit of a surprise,” Alice Bender, Head of Nutrition Programs at AICR, tells Yahoo Beauty. “It was also exciting because we don’t have a lot of positive ways for pre-menopausal women to lower their risk of breast cancer.”

She explains that exercising can shed excess body fat, which has been known to play a role in promoting cancer. “Physical activity does strengthen the immune system, so that may put our body in a better place to help stop some of the cancer growth and cancer cells from proliferating,” adds Bender.

However, researchers cannot identify the reason behind supersweaty workouts being linked with lower risk of breast cancer. “They looked at the women who were most active compared to the women who did the least amount of vigorous exercise, and all that shows us is that there is an effect,” continues Bender. “We don’t know exactly why, we don’t exactly how much is needed to get that [benefit]. The idea is that just trying to pump it up a little bit can be helpful.”

And the type of workout is irrelevant. “It’s not that you have to go out and run sprints — what you want to do is work hard enough so your breathing harder and your heart is beating fast,” states Bender.

She also points out that people are at different fitness levels “so ‘moderate’ for one person is ‘vigorous’ for someone else.” A good guide: “If you can carry on a conversation during the exercise, well, that’s probably moderate.”

Overall, Bender considers the findings from this report to be empowering.

“We know there are no guarantees when it comes to cancer of any kind — we know that many people can be taking care of themselves and cancer can still happen — but we have specific steps women can take to reduce their risk of breast cancer,” she concludes. “Being active, limiting alcohol, and doing what you can do to [maintain] a healthy weight throughout life — these are the most important steps women can take, which are going to help women be healthier overall.”

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