In the world of health advice, the message with exercise is very clear: Do it. Do it regularly and do it vigorously (if you’re able). Do it to lose weight and to feel good. Do it to prevent breast cancer, to improve your prognosis if you have breast cancer and to reduce the chance that cancer will come back.
“Exercise reduces breast cancer risk both directly, by helping to reduce circulating hormones — like estrogen and insulin — associated with cell and tumor growth, and indirectly, by helping control weight,” says Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, director of nutrition and physical activity at the American Cancer Society.
Controlling your weight matters: Significant overweight is a big risk factor for developing breast cancer after menopause, and it affects how you’ll fare if you get breast cancer at any age. “Being overweight increases the risk of recurrence and decreases survival among women diagnosed with breast cancer,” Doyle says. “All of us should be incorporating exercise into our lives.”
And it’s never too early — or late! — to start. Exercising as a young woman can protect you from developing breast cancer later in life. And, with your doctor’s okay, you can safely exercise during treatment and as you age to reap its many benefits.
Move More for Maximum Results
When it comes to how much exercise you need, the message is just as clear: the more the better. (Truth is, most of us aren’t getting enough anyway.) The American Cancer Society guidelines for breast cancer prevention say we need 45 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity five or more days a week.
A New York Times article on breast cancer prevention reports, “[Breast cancer] risk drops with increased hours and strenuousness of exercise, and studies have found that women who do an average of three hours of strenuous exercise a week reduce their risk of breast cancer by 20 percent.”
The best kinds of exercise? Ones you enjoy and will continue to do. Get a mix of aerobic and strength-training activities to reap the full rewards, which include increased metabolism, strong bones, better stamina and overall toning. If you’re not active now, start by taking a daily walk or swim; as your fitness increases, try out other blood pumpers, such as biking, running, cardio classes or tennis.
Exercise During Treatment and Beyond
You may think that cancer treatment is the time to put the breaks on exercise. After all, you’re not supposed to be losing weight during treatment, you may be struggling to eat enough as it is and you may feel wiped out.
But exercise can actually help counter many negative effects of treatment (including decreased appetite, slowed digestion and constipation) and give you more energy overall. And, along with a healthy diet, exercise can mitigate the weight gain that can occur in some women during breast cancer treatment. Here are some fitness ideas tailored for those undergoing treatment:
Get personal. Thanks to a new joint program from the American Cancer Society and the American College of Sports Medicine, you can now use a personal trainer who specializes in working with people who have cancer. The Cancer Exercise Trainer, or CET, program focuses on the special needs of people who have been diagnosed with cancer, are receiving or have completed treatment or are cancer survivors. ( Find a CET near you. Select ACSM/ACS Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer in the drop-down list.)
Say om. Yoga may help relieve symptoms of cancer and side effects of treatment such as pain, anxiety, stress and depression. This 5,000-year-old practice also can help you control your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and body temperature. Breast cancer survivors who perform yoga report improved quality of life. And because its benefits come less from the physical strenuousness of the moves than from the deep breathing and meditative aspects of the practice, you can do gentler forms and still feel a difference. Or try power yoga for a cardio, strength-training and meditation triple whammy.