Five years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a new patient, Sheila (not her real name), who was 45 years old, a busy working mom with young kids, and about 30 pounds overweight. Her extra weight worried me because it increases the risk of breast cancer recurrence and other health problems.
After acknowledging the everyday challenges of weight management, we went right to solutions. “Are you able to exercise regularly?” I asked her. She shifted her gaze uncomfortably and hesitated to answer. “Not much,” she said eventually.
Start small, I suggested. Take the stairs instead of the elevator at work. Walk to the nearby corner store to pick up milk instead of driving. Go for a walk with a friend instead of out to dinner. Shoot for a minimum of 7 minutes of exercise a day — but strive for 3 to 4 hours per week. She agreed to try it.
Three months later I saw Sheila for a checkup. She’d lost 10 pounds and looked great: not only slimmer but also more alert and energetic. “How did it go?” I asked.
“I feel like a new person,” she told me. After a week of taking small opportunities to move her body, such as taking the stairs and walking for short errands, her 12-year-old daughter got interested in what she was doing. They started walking together for a half-hour each morning before school and work. “Not only are we getting exercise and fresh air,” she said, “it’s become a special time when she can tell me about what’s going on with her.”
That was 5 years ago. I saw Sheila a few weeks ago and she was healthier by every measure at 50 than she was at 45. Something shifted in her thinking, from “there’s no way I can pull this off,” to “I must take care of myself — for me and for my family.” Her success with doing regular exercise carried over to better eating habits as well.
This story is so inspiring to me because regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This advice is based on many, many studies that link exercise to good health.
Exercise: Key to good health
Exercise is good for your body and your mind. It supports bone and muscle health and increases your energy levels. Exercise also can boost your mood, keep you mentally healthy, and improve your quality of life. Exercising regularly as we age helps us stay able to do daily activities and prevents falls. We usually think of exercise as a way to stay trim, and it’s true that exercise is one of the most effective ways to help you get to and stick to a healthy weight. While that can be good for self-esteem, keeping a healthy weight is most important because it comes with many other health benefits.
Large studies in the United States, Europe, and Australia show that exercise reduces the risk of dying from any cause. In one study of more than 2,500 Australians who were mostly in their 50s, people who had done very little physical activity increased the number of steps they walked per day from 1,000 to 10,000 and got dramatic results: a 46% lower risk of death.
Many studies also show that people who exercise are less likely to get breast cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Exercise works in several important ways to improve health and lower the risk of breast cancer. Exercise strengthens the immune system, which finds and fights tumor cells. Exercise also helps reduce cell damage caused by inflammation that could lead to cancer. Exercise also can help you reduce the strain of stress on your body.
In people diagnosed with breast cancer, exercise can reduce treatment side effects, such as fatigue, anxiety, and depression, that can last for years after treatment for some women. It is especially effective in reducing side effects from hormonal therapy, such as the aromatase inhibitors. Some breast cancer treatments can increase the risk of heart disease, bone loss, and other health problems. But exercise can help ease these problems, too.
After a breast cancer diagnosis, exercise can also have a life-saving role. Starting an exercise program after a breast cancer diagnosis is linked to a 35 to 83% reduction in the risk of dying from the disease. Those are amazing figures. And it reduces the risk of the cancer coming back, according to a review of 22 studies involving more than 123,000 breast cancer survivors.
The reverse is also true: Being inactive is a known risk factor for breast cancer. A study of 19,000 menopausal women found that women who exercised the least had a 40% higher incidence of breast cancer than women who exercised the most. This was true regardless of how much the women weighed.
Exercise is something everyone can do to reduce risk. Even if you have health problems, you can do some kind of exercise that will help. If you’ve never been active, you may think that there’s no point in beginning now. But it’s never too late to start.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has written some useful targets for physical activity.
- 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate physical activity that gets your heart pumping a little bit, such as brisk walking or gardening
- 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous physical activity that really gets your heart pumping, such as jogging, swimming laps, or a Zumba class
Ideally, you’d exercise for at least 10 minutes at a time and spread your 75 or 150 total minutes throughout the week.
Start small and keep upping your goals
The targets above might seem huge if you haven’t been exercising at all. But if you stick with it, your body will get stronger and exercise will feel easier. After a while, you might be ready to exercise for more time or at a higher intensity. We know that moving more can improve your health more. If you’re already meeting the targets above, try these goals:
- increase moderate physical activity to 300 minutes (5 hours) per week
- increase vigorous activity to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week
- strengthen your muscles by lifting weights or using resistance bands two or more days a week; work all muscle groups: legs, arms, abs, back (if you’ve had lymph nodes removed, pay special attention to the safety information below before trying weightlifting or resistance bands)
Keep it safe
Of course, it’s important to exercise safely. Strenuous exercise immediately after breast cancer treatment without any supervision can be dangerous. Definitely take the time you need to heal. Moderate activity is safe for most people. If you have a chronic health problem or are in the middle of cancer treatment, talk to your doctor to find out if you should limit your activity in any way. I strongly recommend meeting with a physical therapist to develop a physical activity plan to get you where you want to be. It’s going to take time, focus, commitment, and patience. Dr. Kathryn Schmitz, a member of the Breastcancer.org Professional Advisory Board, helped develop the Strength After Breast Cancer program, which has helped many women.
In particular, lymphedema — the build-up of lymph fluid somewhere in your body, such as your arm, hand, or torso — is a risk after breast cancer treatment. To learn more about the types of exercises you should avoid if you have lymphedema or want to reduce the risk of developing lymphedema, visit the Breastcancer.org Exercise Safely page.
For any condition or illness you have, work with your doctor to develop an activity plan that matches your condition and abilities.
Make every day #MotivationMonday
I didn’t get serious about my yo-yo weight issues until my breast cancer diagnosis 6 years ago. It was a wake-up call that I needed to deal with the pitfalls and silly mind games that made me fail to control myself and my weight. Since then I’ve been able to keep off 15 of the 25 extra pounds — but I still yo-yo over a 10-pound range. It’s a daily struggle because I love to eat. I try very hard to stick to my exercise plan. Rather than exercise to the point of pain, which invites injury, I exercise for joy, fun, flexibility, range of motion, and strength. Before my diagnosis, I was so strong. With surgeries, hormonal therapy, and aging, I’ve lost some of my groove. But I’m determined to become strong again. This goal keeps me motivated. To keep me on my diet, I also plan regular meetings or events where I really want to look good and glam, like seeing old friends (especially an old boyfriend) at a school reunion :).
Try not to get discouraged if you get busy and skip a few days or weeks — or even months — of exercise. The only thing that matters is to get back to regularly moving again.
Here’s the truth: Every little bit helps. Study after study shows that any physical activity is better for your health than none. So don’t waste time feeling badly about yourself for not doing more. Anything you do is a plus. Take the stairs, walk or ride your bike on errands, play with your children or grandchildren, walk your dog. Even doing something small will make you feel stronger and better able to do more next time. Any time you get busy or overwhelmed and drop out of exercising, just start again by doing one small thing.
To learn more about the benefits of exercise, how to exercise safely, and exercising during breast cancer treatment, visit the Breastcancer.org Exercise section.