Get physical to reduce risk of breast cancer

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Physical activity is a known strategy helping to reduce the risk of breast cancer, particularly in postmenopausal women.   It’s common after menopause for women to gain weight often in the abdominal area – belly fat – increasing the risk not only for breast cancer but also type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and other cancers.  Now it looks like women should “feel the burn” even more to reduce their breast cancer risk. 

Studies show exercise benefits reducing breast cancer

Over the years, studies have shown a positive correlation of women who regularly participate in some sort of physical activity and the role exercise has in not only reducing breast cancer risk but also suggesting it as a preventative measure.

One factor driving the increased risk of developing breast cancer after menopause is too much body fat.  The combination of carrying excess body fat, having a body mass index   >30 and being past the age of 60, all increase breast cancer risk according to a 2015 study.   After menopause, women’s estrogen comes from fat tissue and the more fat tissue a woman has the more estrogen produced leading to an increased risk of breast cancer.  Obese women also have higher circulating levels of the hormone insulin and insulin-like growth factors (IGF’s) both of which have been linked to tumor cell growth. 

A study in JAMA Oncology looked at how body fat increases postmenopausal breast cancer risk.   The study wanted to find out if physical activity could reduce the risk by changes in adiposity or body fat percent in women. What the study showed was that postmenopausal women who were physically active substantially more than the current recommendation of 150 minutes a week, experienced greater benefits in improvements in body composition.  According to the study, women who followed a moderate to vigorous exercise regimen for 300 minutes a week had higher averages of reduction in total weight loss, abdominal fat and better waist-to-hip ratios.  In other words, go above and beyond what the current physical activity recommendations state.  By losing or keeping weight off and lowering body fat, this may further help reduce breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women.

Ways to increase physical activity

Basically it’s not good to carry excess body fat after menopause – or even before. One of the best ways to regulate body fat is to increase physical activity.  This is often easier said than done.  Women entering menopause who have not exercised consistently over the years, should first get clearance from their physician before starting an exercise routine.  Even then, increasing physical activity each day can be a struggle.  The key is to start off slowly, gradually building up the amount of minutes each day until at or near 300 minutes a week.  Sneak in physical activity throughout the day whenever possible.  Here are some ideas on how to get moving:

· Wear a pedometer – aim to get in at least 10,000 steps a day

· Bring walking shoes to work and walk over the lunch hour

· Avoid escalators and elevators – use the stairs

· Park in the farthest corner of a parking lot to get in extra steps

· Make exercise a priority – have set times to workout

· Walk around when talking on the phone

· Every time there is a commercial break, get up and walk, stretch, do jumping jacks, jump rope or run in place

· Sit less, move more

· Join a gym, hire a personal trainer or form a walking/exercise club

· Seek out nature trails to go on a brisk walk

· Lift weights

· Try out new forms of exercise – learn to play tennis, dance, swim, bicycle or whatever sounds fun.

Making exercise fun and enjoyable is pivotal to sticking with it.  When exercise becomes pleasurable, it becomes addictive and then it becomes a regular part of the day.  In addition, the benefits are enormous – not only can breast cancer risk be reduced but there will be improvements in energy, stamina, less stress, decreased sickness and a feeling of well-being. 

Physical activity should be as routine as brushing teeth.  Whether a woman has gone through menopause or not, the message is don’t wait before it’s too late.