Obesity is a major contributor to the nation’s cancer toll and is quickly overtaking tobacco as the leading preventable cause of cancer, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, making a healthy diet and regular exercise that much more important.
Exercise has many benefits—but chief among them is maintaining a healthy weight. Regular exercise helps reduce the risk of obesity-associated diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many types of cancer, including breast cancer.
Breast cancer and obesity are both on the rise worldwide and, interestingly, the two diseases are connected. Obesity can significantly increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer after menopause, according to the National Cancer Institute. Furthermore, women who are obese at the time of diagnosis have a 30 percent higher chance of dying from breast cancer or other causes in the years following their diagnosis. The American Cancer Society’s 2019 statistics attribute rising incidence rates of hormone receptor (HR)–positive breast cancer—the most common type of breast cancer—to the increasing prevalence of excess body weight.
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Remarkably, even dietary choices in childhood and adolescence can have an impact. Studies by BCRF researchers Drs. Graham Colditz, Walter Willett, and others have shown that being overweight early in life increases a woman’s risk of benign breast disease, which can increase her chance of future breast cancer.
The good news is that studies have consistently shown that making lifestyle changes including keeping a healthy diet, losing weight, and doing moderate-intensity exercise—just 150 minutes a week or more of aerobic exercise and strength training—can play a role in preventing breast cancer and improving prognosis after a breast cancer diagnosis. It is estimated that a third of breast cancers could be prevented with lifestyle choices, particularly those that help to maintain a healthy weight, including eating a balanced diet and exercising.
How does exercise reduce cancer risk? Although the evidence is clear, we do not yet fully understand the connection between exercise, breast cancer risk, and weight. BCRF investigators are working to unravel the biologic mechanisms underlying this relationship and develop effective intervention strategies.
Ultimately, understanding the interplay between breast cancer, diet, exercise, and weight loss could lead to the development of personalized and more effective prevention strategies, like specific diet and exercise plans.
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