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Two studies show impact of exercise on breast cancer

May 25th, 2017

Exercise is important for good health and plays an important role in preventing many diseases, but how just much of a difference can it make?

Two recent studies have provided solid data on the impact that exercise – something we don’t do enough of as a nation – has on breast cancer prevention, treatment and death.

According to a report from the World Cancer Research Fund vigorous exercise, like cycling or running, cuts the risk of post-menopausal breast cancer by 10 per cent compared to women who were the least active in the study.

An Australian study has also shown that the risk of dying may be nearly halved by regularly walking and lifting moderate weights. Those with cancer who exercised reduced their risk of developing secondary, or metastatic breast cancer, by 35 per cent and side-effects from chemotherapy were reported to be less intense.

breast cancer exercise
Research has shown exercise helps prevent breast cancer, and also make treatment more effective and increases survival.

 What are ‘risk factors’ for breast cancer?

Breast cancer affects one in eight Australians by the age of 85 and takes the lives of over 3000 women every year.

There are certain factors that put us at risk of breast cancer – some we can control and some we can’t. For example, a family history of breast cancer is not something we can change, nor is being tall, having dense breast tissue, being a woman or getting older– all risk factors for breast cancer.

However, there are some things we can influence – so-called ‘modifiable risk factors’. These include smoking, not getting enough exercise, not eating a healthy low-fat diet, having children later in life, being overweight and drinking more alcohol than recommended – all risk factors for breast cancer.

Research suggests that changes to these modifiable risk factors can decrease (or increase) the risk of breast cancer, with exercise being the one with the biggest impact.1

How active are we?

Globally, physical inactivity is estimated to be the main cause for up to a quarter of breast cancers. But Australians don’t get enough exercise, with 60% of Australian adults doing less than the recommended 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per day.2

So how does exercise make a difference?

Understanding the impact of exercise has been an emerging of research area over the last five to 10 years.

Researchers are working hard to understand how exercise helps with prevention, survival and treatments of breast cancer, as well as how it improves quality of life and symptoms such as fatigue, a common problem experienced by cancer sufferers.

It’s not yet clear exactly why exercise has all these benefits and more research is needed to understand the mechanisms behind the effect of exercise has on protecting against cancer.

Exercise in action

breast cancer exercise jenni willson james
Breast cancer survivor Jenni Willson works out with personal trainer James to stop her cancer returning.

Breast cancer survivor Jenni Willson eats healthily and has a regular exercise routine which includes weights and cardio exercises.

“I go to the gym four times a week and try to walk to work once a week, weather permitting. If you want to be healthy, fit and not have the dreaded C return then you’ve got to look after yourself,” she says.

Since her diagnosis and treatment in 2007 she put on weight, but she’s committed to this level of fitness and has lost 10kg. She says it’s important to help prevent her breast cancer returning.



What research is happening?

The National Breast cancer Foundation (NBCF) has a history of funding research that looks into the impact of exercise on reducing risk, enhancing recovery and contributing to quality of life for those affected by breast cancer.

Dr Brigid Lynch from the Cancer Council Victoria is funded by NBCF to investigate if wearable technology has the potential to get women more active. Dr Lynch’s research tackles this from two angles – gathering data on the impact of exercise on preventing breast cancer and how it can help women going through treatment cope better and make the treatment more effective.

In the long-term, Dr Lynch’s research will help to provide recommendations to the public health system on the type of exercise that is most beneficial for women with breast cancer.

NBCF also funds Professor Robert Newton from the Exercise Medicine Research Institute at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia who is developing an effective exercise program for women with metastatic breast cancer. His research will evaluate if resistance and aerobic exercise can be used as treatment – reducing tumour growth, improving quality of life and improving the health of muscle, bone, heart and lungs.

Ultimately, Professor Newton aims to create an exercise regime accessible to everyone dealing with the symptoms of metastatic breast cancer in Australia.

Robert Newton exercise
Professor Robert Newton is funded by NBCF to develop an exercise program to help women with metastatic breast cancer.





  1.  http://www.cmaj.ca/content/189/7/E268.full.pdf+html
  2. Australian Health Survey: Physical Activity, 2011-12, http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/health-pubhlth-strateg-active-evidence.htm