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Being Active For Your Breast Health

Regular physical activity helps improve your overall physical, emotional and social health and well-being. Another important reason to get more active is that it can lower breast cancer risk by as much as 25%. 

How does physical activity reduce breast cancer risk?

Research has identified a number of ways that regular physical activity may act to decrease breast cancer risk. Physical activity can modify the level of sex hormonesHormone:
A natural substance released into the body by the endocrine glands, such as the thyroid, adrenal gland or ovaries.
(e.g. estrogenEstrogen:
A female sex hormone that is produced mainly in the ovaries. A woman’s levels of estrogen fluctuate throughout her life. Estrogen has been linked to the development of breast cancer and may promote the growth of cancer cells.
) in the body, reduce inflammationInflammation:
The immune system’s response to tissue damage caused by infection, injury, exposure to toxins, or other types of trauma. Chronic inflammation has been linked to increased cancer risk.
, insulin resistanceInsulin resistance:
A condition where the body’s cells have a lowered level of response to the effects of insulin. This can lead to pre-diabetes or the development of type 2 diabetes.
, and body fat levels – all of which may play a role in an increasing breast cancer risk. 

Women who are physically active may also be more likely to eat a balanced diet, have a healthier body weight, quit or avoid smoking and pursue other healthy behaviours.

Regular physical activity is beneficial for women of all ages, before and after menopauseMenopause:
A natural part of a woman's aging process, when the ovaries start to make less estrogen and progesterone and the menstrual periods stop. This change typically occurs between the late 40s and mid-to-late 50s.
. It’s never too late to start: the benefits of regular physical activity exist even when you start later in life.

How much is enough?

Research continues to look at the relationship between physical activity and breast cancer risk – how much is enough, how often, at what intensity, during what stage of life, and what types of activities offer the most benefit for reducing breast cancer risk. Although there is still more to learn, current evidence suggests that at least 30-60 minutes per day of moderate or vigorous level physical activity is needed to lower risk.

Use the following guidelines to help you incorporate physical activity into your daily life and get the most benefit for your breast health:

  • Try to get a minimum of 30 minutes per day, five days a week or about 2.5 hours per week of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic physical activity, for example brisk walking, cycling, swimming, taking an exercise or dance class, or cross-country skiing.

  • Choose physical activities that you enjoy and will be more likely to continue. The activities you choose can be as simple as taking a brisk walk for 30 minutes. Vigorous intensity activity may provide even more benefit for your breast health. If you are able, aim to push yourself to break a sweat and breathe harder.

  • If you are already active for 30 minutes a day, try to work your way up to 60 minutes.

  • The activity can be broken up throughout the day in 10-minute bouts, at a minimum.

  • Add muscle and bone strengthening activities on at least two days per week. This includes brisk walking, jogging, or lifting weights.

If you are not a healthy weight, even a small weight loss may lower your risk of breast cancer. The best weight-loss formula involves a healthy, balanced diet combined with low-to-moderate intensity activity over a longer period rather than short, intense bursts.

What does moderate-to-vigorous intensity feel like?

If you’re not sure whether you’re reaching a moderate-to-vigorous level of activity, use these simple guidelines to help you get the most benefit from the physical activities you participate in:

  • Moderate intensity activities will make your heart rate increase, and cause you to sweat a little and breathe harder, but you shouldn’t be out of breath. You should still be able to have a conversation or sing your favourite song. Moderate intensity activities include talking a brisk walk or doing water aerobics.

  • Vigorous level physical activities will cause you to sweat and be out of breath. You may only be able to say a few words at a time. Examples of vigorous level activities include running or cross-country skiing.

Many activities can be done at different levels simply by increasing or decreasing the pace or changing where you are active (e.g. choosing a route with hills). It’s important to start slowly and build up to a moderate-to-vigorous level. Check with a health care provider when beginning a new physical activity routine, especially if you have previously been inactive.

You May Be More Active Than You Think

Physical activity adds up and can include things like the following:

  • Getting off the bus a couple of stops early and walking to your destination

  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator

  • Taking a brisk walk after meals

  • Raking leaves, gardening, or mowing the lawn

  • Housework such as vacuuming, washing floors, or dusting

  • Taking regular stretch breaks throughout the day

  • Walk around the house while talking on the phone

  • Parking farther away at a shopping mall and doing a couple of extra laps around the mall while you’re there

  • Dancing

  • Walking the dog

  • Playing with your children



Bernstein, L (2009). Exercise and Breast Cancer Prevention. Current Oncology Reports, 11, 490-496.

Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. (2011). Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults 18-64. Accessed March 21, 2014. 

Friedenreich, C M & Cust, A E. (2008). Physical Activity and breast cancer risk: impact of timing, type and dose of activity and population subgroup effects. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2008; 42: 636-647.

Hildebrand, J.S., Gapstur, S.M., Campbell, P.T., Gaudet, M.M., Patel, A.V. (2013). Recreational Physical Activity and Leisure-Time Sitting in Relation to Postmenopausal Breast Cancer Risk. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, 22 (10), 1906-1912.

Johns Hopkins Breast Center – Artemis Bulletin. (October 2003). Exercise and Breast-Cancer Prevention: It's Never Too Late to Start. Accessed June 17, 2014       

Public Health Agency of Canada. Physical Activity Guidelines. Accessed June 17, 2014

National Cancer Institute. (2008). Delving Deeper into Exercise and Breast Cancer Prevention. NCI Cancer Bulletin, Oct 21, 2008, Vol. 5, No. 21. Accessed June 17, 2014

American Cancer Society. (2012). Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention. Accessed April 9, 2014.