Exercise Reduces Risk of Heart Disease in Women Treated for Early-Stage Breast Cancer

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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, according to a small study.

The research was published online on March 28, 2019, 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.”

Why exercise?

Many studies have found a link between regular exercise and a lower risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as a lower risk of breast cancer coming back (recurrence).

As a result, the American Cancer Society and many doctors recommend that women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as those who haven’t, exercise regularly — about 4–5 hours per week at a moderate intensity level. (Brisk walking is considered moderate intensity exercise.) This is about double what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends per week for adults.

In addition, receiving chemotherapy to treat breast cancer increases a woman’s risk of metabolic syndrome; obesity also increases this risk.

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of health conditions, including high blood pressure, excess body fat, and high cholesterol. In turn, metabolic syndrome increases the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and breast cancer recurrence.

Research suggests women with metabolic syndrome are 17% more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, 3 times more likely to have a breast cancer recurrence, and 2 times more likely to die from breast cancer.

Other research suggests that overweight women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer are at higher risk of heart disease than similar women who haven’t been diagnosed with breast cancer. So, researchers wanted to know if exercise could reduce this higher risk.

How this study was done

The study included 100 women diagnosed with stage I to stage III breast cancer. The women had completed breast cancer treatment within 6 months of starting the study. At the beginning of the study, all the women did not exercise and all were considered to be overweight or obese. On average, the women were about 54 years old.

The women were randomly split into two groups:

  • The exercise group (50 women) did 16 weeks of 3 sessions per week of supervised aerobic and weight-bearing exercise and were also urged to do another 30 to 45 minutes of exercise at home.
  • The usual care group (50 women) was told to continue their current level of physical activity.

The researchers used a tool called the Framingham Risk Score (FRS) to calculate the women’s risk of developing heart disease in the next 10 years. The FRS looks at a number of factors, including:

  • gender
  • age
  • cholesterol levels
  • whether the person smokes cigarettes or not
  • blood pressure

The FRS tool result is a point total that corresponds to the risk that the person will develop heart disease in the next 10 years:

  • A score of less than 10% risk is considered low risk.
  • A score of 10% to 20% is considered intermediate risk.
  • A score of greater than 20% is considered high risk.

After the 16-week exercise program was done, the researchers compared FRS scores between the women in the exercise group and the women in the usual care group.

Average FRS scores were:

  • 2 in the exercise group
  • 13 in the usual care group

This difference in FRS scores was statistically significant, which means it was likely due to the difference in exercise and not just because of chance.

What this means for you: Make exercise part of your treatment plan

While small, this study offers more evidence that exercise offers great benefits to women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

If you’re recovering from breast cancer treatment or are still in treatment, along with being busy with work, household chores, and family matters, finding time to exercise almost every day can seem impossible.

It can help to break up your exercise into 20- or 30-minute sessions that add up to about 4 hours per week. Walking is a great way to start. Maybe you walk 30 minutes before going to work and 20 minutes on your lunch break. You can add a few more minutes by parking farther away from your building or taking mass transit. Or you can make plans to walk with a friend after work — you’re more likely to stick with an exercise plan if someone else is counting on you. Plus, you can socialize at the same time.

No matter how old you are, it’s never too late or too soon to get moving. And once you do start, keep at it!

Visit the Breastcancer.org Exercise section for tips on exercising safely and how to stick to an exercise routine.

To talk with others about the benefits of exercise, share exercise tips, and get encouragement, join the Breastcancer.org Discussion Board forum Fitness and Getting Back in Shape.

Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor

Reviewed by: Brian Wojciechowski, M.D., medical adviser


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