Exercise and heart disease after breast cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology Social Work

APRIL 22, 2019

Overweight Woman Exercising in GymA small study, just released, suggests that a structured exercise program of aerobic and weight-bearing exercise reduced the risk of heart disease in overweight or obese women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. There have been a number of earlier studies suggesting that regular moderate exercise may reduce the risk of breast cancer in the first place and/or may reduce the recurrence risk for women who have been diagnosed.

The research was published online by the journal JAMA Oncology. Read the abstract of "Effect of Aerobic and Resistance Exercise Intervention on Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Women With Early-Stage Breast Cancer: A Randomized Clinical Trial."

The American Cancer Society recommends that women, post breast cancer, have moderate exercise 4-5 hours/week. This recommendation is almost double the standard one from the one for adults from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What is different about this new study is the focus on heart disease, the other major killer of Americans.

In this study, 100 women, who had been diagnosed with Stage I, II, or III breast cancer were split into two groups. All had completed treatment within the past six months and all were non-exercisers who were overweight or obese. One group attended three group exercise sessions each week and were encouraged to add more exercise at home. The second group received no particular instructions beyond just continuing their usual routines.

Using a standard risk score, the exercising women had an average score of 2 while the non-exercisers' average was 13. This is a significant difference and reminds us that, even though we may be thinking most about a possible breast cancer recurrence, we need also to think about other health risks and ways to stay well.

It can be daunting to consider adding 4-5 hours a week of exercise to an already busy schedule. Remember that it can be broken up. There is no rule that you need to do a full hour at one time. If you take a half hour walk in the morning or at lunch, you can add another twenty minute walk after work. If part of your commute includes a walk, you may be already there. If not, remember the standard suggestions of parking further away from your destination, using stairs rather than elevators, and leaving the car at home for short trips.

Making exercise part of your regular daily habit is rather than trying to change your diet. It takes about six weeks for anything to become habit, and, during those weeks, it will take conscious attention and effort. Just as you may be trying to cut back on desserts, you can add a little more walking.

Breast cancer, cancer of any kind, forces us to think more about our health and our habits and encourages us to consider improvements. The fact that regular moderate exercise may reduce our risk of both cancer recurrence and heart disease seems to be a powerful motivator.

Do you exercise regularly? What do you do?

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.