Our bodies are designed to move. Exercise heals and nurtures us, just as we need to sleep, our bodies need to exercise. Physical inactivity promotes a vicious cycle where reduced blood circulation and lack of oxygen result in less energy and more fatigue. Regular physical activity creates a more inhospitable environment for tumour development in breast cancer and can make tumours more vulnerable to the effects of chemotherapy. Exercise helps to strengthen our innate healing capacity and is important for helping to keep cancer at bay whilst also supporting recovery and reducing the risk of reoccurrence. We all know it’s good to exercise, but why is it especially important to exercise to prevent breast cancer? Here are 7 good reasons:
- It strengthens the immune system. One of the ways it does this is via Natural Killer Cells (NK-cells), aptly named for their ability to detect and kill harmful cells. They are important for immune surveillance, detecting early signs of cancers and killing tumour cells. A well-functioning immune system is crucial for both fighting and preventing breast cancer.
- It helps regulate your blood sugar. When we eat sugary foods, your blood sugar increases, resulting in a release of insulin. High insulin levels can cause an increase in breast cancer risk. Managing blood sugar is also very important for women who have breast cancer as breast cancer cells have insulin receptors on them and when insulin attaches to them, it can make cancer cells grow faster.
- It reduces stress and is a powerful mood booster. Women who are under severe stress are more prone to developing breast cancer as stress increases inflammation, increases blood sugar and can disrupt the immune system. When you engage in physical activity that gets your heart rate up, your body releases endorphins and other mood boosting hormones.
- It helps regulate your body weight: Obesity and breast cancer are linked. After menopause, your fat cells are where a lot of oestrogen production occurs. The more fat cells you have, the more oestrogen your body will produce.
- It improves bone health, especially if you are taking an aromatase inhibitor as these can increase your risk of osteoporosis. Ensure that the exercise programme you undertake includes weight bearing exercises.
- It lowers IGF-1 or Insulin like growth factor. Keeping IGF-1 low is very important because it is a powerful stimulator of breast cancer. Of course, dietary modification in conjunction with exercise is very important for reducing IGF-1.
- It improves your sleep. Studies show an inverse association between sleep duration and breast cancer risk. A bad night’s sleep can mean fatigue and inactivity in the day. Exercise during the day rather than doing any vigorous exercise late at night as this supports your circadian rhythms.
Add all of these benefits up and you can see why movement is medicine.
A point to Remember, exercise is not all about running distances or going to the gym, it is about regularly moving your body. It could be tennis, walking, swimming, surfing, hiking, cycling, dancing, yoga or tai chi. Group classes are a great way to gain physical and psychological benefit from exercise. Embarking on an exercise plan can leave some people feeling like it is just another thing to do in their already busy days. If you feel like that, starting out with just making some small changes can by helpful. Park in the furthest space in a carpark; do some press ups when you get up in the morning; take the stairs whenever you can; do some squats whilst brushing your teeth; find a friend to walk with you; get a standing desk; request walking meetings; there are so many day to day ways to increase your fitness levels. Once you start to feel more energetic, you are more likely to want to do more exercise. Whatever exercise you decide to do, find something you enjoy and do it regularly.