Stay Active to Reduce Post-Menopause Breast Cancer Risk

Taking a Brisk Walk in the Park
Taking a Brisk Walk in the Park. Kevin Dodge/Blend Images/Getty

If you feel like cutting back on exercise after menopause, think again. Staying physically active can lower your breast cancer risk and improve your chances of survival after a diagnosis of breast cancer. While there are many other good reasons to enjoy a healthy, brisk walk each day, this is one that may motivate you.

How Much Walking or Exercise Is Needed

The good news is that the amount of exercise needed to reduce breast cancer risks matches the recommendations for the minimum physical activity to maintain health and reduce risks for heart disease and diabetes as well as breast cancer. Brisk walking or other moderately-intense exercises for 35 minutes per day (four hours per week) was the amount shown to reduce risks in one study. You should be maintaining that level of activity throughout life, as the exercise recommendations call for the same amount of exercise for those over age 65 as for adults under that age.

Keep Exercising After Menopause to Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk

A study of 59,308 postmenopausal women found that the risk of invasive breast cancer was reduced by 10 percent if they walked for a total of four hours per week (35 minutes per day) or engaged in more vigorous exercise (such as cycling or running) for a total of two hours per week.

The bad news is that if they stopped exercising at this rate, their breast cancer risk went back up to that of less active women. It also didn't help if you were more active in the past decade but had cut back on exercise in the past four years.

For women who were less active before menopause, the study found that starting exercise reduced risk whether or not the women were previously active. That's a good reason to start now, even if you were never active before.

Women who gained weight over the course of the years of the study continued to have the beneficial effects of exercise to reduce their breast cancer risk. The effect also was seen regardless of body mass index and waist circumference.

"Our study shows that it is not necessary to engage in vigorous or very frequent activities; even walking 30 minutes per day is beneficial," said Agnès Fournier, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, in a press release.

More Exercise May Be Better

Another study of 73,615 postmenopausal women found that the most active women had a 25 percent lower risk of breast cancer when compared to the least-active women. The least-active category were women who spent the equivalent of fewer than two hours per week in moderately-intense exercise. Walking was a favorite exercise activity, with 47 percent of the women the in the study saying it was their only recreational activity. The walking-only women who spent more seven or more hours per week walking had a 14 percent lower risk of breast cancer as compared to women who walked three hours or less per week. It may be worthwhile to get in an hour of walking a day as opposed to just 30 minutes or less.

Exercise Helps Breast Cancer Survival Rates

While you may reduce your risks by staying active, that doesn't guarantee that you won't develop breast cancer. But it is encouraging that your level of physical activity before and after a diagnosis of breast cancer can reduce the rate of recurrence and mortality due to breast cancer. A 2015 review of 22 studies found that women who were active throughout their lives, those who were active after diagnosis, and those who met the recommended amount of exercise per week all had lower rates of breast cancer progression or recurrence, as well as a lower mortality rate.

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