Sweat to prevent: Beating breast cancer with exercise

“What caused my breast cancer?” Patients have asked me this seemingly simple question every day of my 16 years as a breast cancer surgeon. Despite the incredible advances we’ve made, I still have to answer, “I don’t know.” If you search the Internet, you can discover a list of about 50 possible causes. Unfortunately you can’t prevent the major risk factors: being female, getting older, living in North America, and genetic risk.

Breast Cancer and Exercise

But there’s good news. There are several risk factors you can control. One way you can prevent breast cancer is with exercise. More than 60 studies show that regular exercise lowers your risk of breast cancer by 20 to 40 percent. If you’re a breast cancer survivor, exercise can help prevent breast cancer from returning by the same percentage.

If that doesn’t motivate you to break a sweat, here are some other health benefits of exercise.

  • Lowers your blood pressure
  • Decreases your risk of many diseases and conditions (including 12 types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, dementia, arthritis, heart disease, etc.)
  • Maintains your bone strength and builds muscle mass
  • Boosts your energy levels
  • Increases your metabolism
  • Improves your memory
  • Decreases excess body fat
  • Helps your immune function
  • Decreases insulin and inflammation
  • Prevents stress

The amount of time a woman is overweight also matters. For each decade a woman is overweight, her breast cancer risk may go up by 7 percent. And while adults who start exercising as a teenager have a lower risk of breast cancer, starting at any age still helps. Even if you’ve never exercised, it’s not too late to start!

Get Motivated: Your Action Plan

If you don’t exercise regularly, I recommend starting with 30 minutes of moderate exercise (such as a brisk walk) each day. Eventually, your goal should be four to five hours per week. For most women, that’s easier said than done because we’re often the caretakers, sacrificing our needs for those of our children, partners, parents, friends and even pets. We’re also the hardest on ourselves and often feel guilty and discouraged when we don’t meet our goals.

Think of exercise as a celebration of what your body can do, not a punishment for being something it’s not. Tell yourself you are worthy of exercising for yourself and schedule exercise until it’s a natural part of your day, like brushing your teeth or taking a shower. Recommit to your daily goals and remember tomorrow is another opportunity to get back on track.

  • Start at a level and activity that’s fun and feels almost easy.
  • Exercise with a friend or go to a group exercise class to keep you accountable and motivated.
  • Meet with a personal trainer to learn simple exercises you can do in the gym or at home to feel comfortable and confident. You don’t need fancy or expensive equipment to break a sweat.
  • Mix it up with cardio, strength and flexibility exercises. Don’t get bored with repeating one activity.
  • Don’t give up if your goal feels far away. I know many women who could barely walk for 10 minutes at a time, who eventually ran a marathon.
  • Know your limits and talk to your doctor for an exercise plan that considers your age, exercise experience, daily energy level and chronic symptoms from medical conditions and treatment side effects.

Remember, whatever your body can do that day is better than nothing. Exercise because you can.

Wen Liang, DO, is a breast surgeon at the Fortney Breast Center.
Originally published Oct. 10, 2016. Last updated Oct. 11, 2019.

Leave a Reply