In honor of Worldwide Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we have a few words about how and why getting and staying fit is so critical to preventing cancer—and fighting it, too. Here are the details concerning how exercise impacts your cancer risk, how the body fights cancer, and which exercises are best in the fight against this deadly killer.
The link between exercise and cancer
Researchers have proven that there is a link between regular exercise and a lower risk for breast cancer—both first time diagnoses and recurring breast cancer. Exercise also reduces your risk of other cancers, including colon cancer, lung cancer, and uterine cancer.
That’s why the Canadian Cancer Society and most doctors recommend that all women, including those who have already received a breast cancer diagnosis, exercise regularly. For most healthy women that means working out at a moderate intensity level for between four to six hours each week.
Doctors have also discovered that it’s important to keep on exercising in order to reap these cancer prevention benefits. This is true across the board among women of different races, sizes, and ages. In other words, once you stop your commitment to staying fit, you cease to enjoy those amazing health and risk-reducing benefits.
Exercise makes traditional cancer treatments and prevention strategies more effective
Maintaining a healthy weight helps in the fight against breast cancer. People with BMIs over 25 have a higher risk of first time diagnoses of breast cancer, and also of recurrences of breast cancer. This is because fat cells make and store estrogen, which can promote the growth of breast cancer cells. Regular exercise can help you burn fat, build muscle, and maintain a healthy weight.
Regular exercise can make cancer treatments more effective and easier for the body to take. Research has proven that exercise can ease nausea during chemotherapy, ease fatigue caused by chemotherapy and radiation, stimulate digestion and elimination to ease constipation, reduce the risk of blood clots by improving blood flow to the legs, and improve your sex drive.
Researchers have also found that breast cancer survivors (and even those unaffected by cancer) live longer when they exercise regularly. This is in part due to the impact exercise has on body weight, blood pressure, and other indices of systemic health.
Exercise is also awesome for improving your mobility. This is important for everyone, but for breast cancer survivors it’s even more critical. Radiation, breast cancer surgery, and reconstruction surgery can all leave you with scar tissue that leave your shoulder and arm muscles feeling restricted and painful. Your inactive recovery period, while necessary, further leads to lost flexibility in these muscles. Stretching and strength building exercises improve your mobility and range of motion.
Exercise is also important to building and maintaining healthy bones—something no one hoping to fight breast cancer can take for granted. Many treatments for breast cancer lead to bone loss, and especially in women over age 50 this is a significant risk. Strength training and other weight-bearing exercises can help you prevent bone loss.
Finally, if you exercise now you already know one of the most important benefits: regular exercise makes you feel less stressed and happier. This is essential in the fight against cancer.
The right exercise for the fight
To get the most cancer-fighting power out of your routine, look for a balance of aerobic, strength/resistance, and flexibility training. Aerobic exercise gets your heart rate up, making you breathe faster and working your muscles. Strength/resistance exercise focuses on your muscles and builds them up using weight, gravity, and resistance. Flexibility exercise increases range of motion and can include foam rolling, pilates, stretching, tai chi, and yoga.
The very idea of battling cancer is scary. No one wants to go through that! You can improve your odds, though, in some very simple ways—like making exercise and fitness a permanent part of your lifestyle. Whether you’re healthy and committed to staying that way or a survivor looking to stay cancer-free, exercise should be one of the most important tools in your toolbox.