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Can exercise lower your risk of breast cancer?

breast cancer cancer diagnosis diagnosis exercise oncology Dec 07, 2022

While it's never quite enough, there is constant research into cancer, its causes, its treatments and helping to find ways to prevent it. In a recent study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine [1], data indicated that physical exercise could help reduce the risk of breast cancer in women.


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Research into exercise v breast cancer

It's always of interest to us to know what kind of data these hypotheses are based on and in this case it included:

  • >130,000 women
  • 70,000 had a breast cancer that had spread
  • 7000 had breast cancer that had not spread
  • >50,000 women did not have breast cancer at all

In the research group, those who were more physically active had a >40% lower risk of breast cancer irrespective of tumour type, and regardless of whether they were pre- or post-menopausal. More specifically, those who exercised vigorously on three or more days a week had a 38% lower risk of breast cancer compared with those who did none.


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Benefits of exercise over being sedentary

You don't need a study to show that exercise is generally good for you. At Jennifer Young we have always been ardent advocates of so-called lifestyle medicine and social prescribing, which include exercise as a central pillar of overall wellbeing. Even so, when looking at the link between exercise and cancer, Cancer Research UK sums it up by saying:

"Keeping active can help you lose weight or keep a healthy weight, which reduces the risk of 13 different types of cancer. And if you’re exercising a lot, it can help prevent breast and bowel cancer." [2]

Importantly in a world where so many of us have sedentary jobs and sit by a computer for extended periods of time, it's not just exercise that's important but the gulf between the very static nature of much of our time, and doing some exercise regularly that's important. The health problems associated with excessive sitting include a higher risk of:

  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Dementia

This study is also the first to draw a link with an increased risk of triple negative breast cancer.

Over and above all things, this research does not mean that if you get cancer it is in any way your fault. The takeaway from this knowledge is that, combined with other lifestyle factors we can help to reduce the risk of cancer or cancer recurrence. It's not a perfect plan, but it can help support overall wellbeing.


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Exercise after a cancer diagnosis

Supporting your body with exercise after a cancer diagnosis is something that many people want to do (especially if they're used to being active). Understandably however, many find it difficult - particularly during treatment.

While gentle exercise (like short walks) can help to manage some of the side effects of cancer treatment, and it can be a good way to support mental health as well, it's also important to be gentle with yourself. Do what you can when you feel up to it. Then, once treatment has stopped or between cycles, do what makes you feel good - a stroll around the garden, a little light yoga - and build it up gently knowing you're doing good things to restore your body.

We view it as part of a holistic approach to restore your body so while the doctor's tackle cancer, we want to support the person.


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