Why Exercise?

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We’ve all heard it hundreds of times: exercise is good for us. The American Cancer Society recommends that women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer exercise regularly (about 4 hours per week) to improve their quality of life and reduce the risk of developing new cancers.

A survey on exercise that Breastcancer.org conducted from October through November 2011 told us that nearly a quarter of the respondents exercise more than 5 hours per week and 15% exercise 3 hours a week. About 90% of the people who took the survey had been diagnosed with breast cancer, so their commitment to exercise is outstanding!

But what exactly is so good about exercise? Here are the ways exercise can improve your life:

You’ll lower your cancer risk. Regular exercise lowers the risk of breast cancer coming back, as well as reducing the risk of ever being diagnosed with breast cancer. Exercise also can lower your risk of cancers of the colon, lung, and uterus.

You’ll be able to maintain a healthy weight. Regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight by building muscle and burning fat. Overweight and obese women -- defined as having a BMI (body mass index) of over 25 -- have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer compared to women who maintain a healthy weight, especially after menopause. Being overweight also can increase the risk of the breast cancer coming back (recurrence) in women who have had the disease.

This higher risk is because fat cells make estrogen; extra fat cells mean more estrogen in the body and estrogen can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers develop and grow.

You may have fewer and less severe side effects from treatment. Research suggests that exercise can:

  • ease nausea during chemotherapy
  • improve blood flow to the legs, reducing the risk of blood clots
  • ease constipation by stimulating digestion and elimination systems
  • rev up your sex drive and enhance your arousal
  • ease fatigue caused by radiation and/or chemotherapy

You’ll live longer. Though the issue is complex, research suggests that exercise can improve survival for breast cancer survivors. Part of this is due to exercise helping survivors maintain a healthy weight.

You’ll have more energy. Fatigue is a side effect that many women have during and after treatment for breast cancer. Regular exercise can boost your endurance and help your heart and lungs work more efficiently, both of which give you more energy for the work you do each day.

You’ll have better mobility. Scar tissue that forms after breast cancer surgery, reconstruction, or radiation can lead to your arm and shoulder muscles feeling tight. Not using your arm and shoulder as much after treatment also can cause the muscles in those areas to lose flexibility. Over time, careful stretching exercises can improve any range of motion issues you may have in your arm and shoulder.

You’ll have more muscle and be stronger. As most people age, they tend to lose muscle and gain fat. Chemotherapy and hormonal therapy medicines can throw you into sudden menopause, which also can cause muscle mass to decrease. Strength training exercises can help make sure you have more muscle than fat -- which means you’ll be able to carry groceries, pick up your pets or grandchildren, and close the lift gate of your car.

You’ll keep your bones healthy. As you age, you lose bone mass. If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, maintaining healthy bones is especially important for you. Research shows that some breast cancer treatments can lead to bone loss. Plus, women are about twice as likely as men to develop osteoporosis (a disease that means your bones are weak and more likely to break) after age 50. Weight-bearing exercise, such as jogging or walking and strength training, can slow bone loss.

You’ll feel better about yourself. A breast cancer diagnosis can leave some women feeling scared, depressed, and anxious. Exercise can help lift your spirits, keep depression at bay, and boost your self-esteem. Physical activity triggers the release of brain chemicals such as endorphins that can make you feel happier and more relaxed. You also might feel better about yourself and your appearance if you exercise regularly and see a fit, strong, toned woman looking back at you in the mirror.

You’ll sleep better. If you struggle with insomnia or wake up a lot at night, regular exercise can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply.

You’ll be less stressed. Any type of exercise can help melt away stress. Besides pumping up endorphin production in the brain, exercise can be a type of meditation. By focusing on just one task – running or dancing or whatever you’re doing -- you may find that you forget the day’s annoyances and settle into a calm, clear state of mind.

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