FFC has partnered with Bright Pink for 8 years as the official training sponsor for Team Bright Pink. If you are interested in running the Chicago Marathon or a number of other endurance races, consider joining us on Team Bright Pink!

As many as 20% of women in the United States are at elevated risk for breast and ovarian cancer, but most don’t know it. Enter Bright Pink—a national non-profit on a mission to save lives from breast and ovarian cancer by empowering women to know their risk and manage their health proactively.

We all know that regular exercise is a great way to take care of your body and promote a healthy lifestyle, but how exactly does this translate to a lower risk of diseases like cancer? We asked Bright Pink’s Medical Advisory Committee Member Elizabeth Hibler, PhD, MPH to weigh in on the benefits of physical activity in lowering a woman’s risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Here’s what we learned:

How does physical activity impact breast and ovarian cancer risk?

First, let’s clarify what “physical activity” means. Physical activity includes all physical movement you make throughout the day. Often we think of physical activity as the “exercise” we get (eg that morning workout or evening spin class). “Exercise” is intentional, planned physical activity, but the walking you do throughout the day, maybe on your commute or during work, also counts as toward your physical activity. 

Many studies have shown that being physically active is connected with having a lower risk of cancer – as well as a lower risk of heart disease! How does physical activity decrease your risk? We know that staying active can help you keep your body at a healthy weight. When you stay at a healthy weight, you limit the amount of fat you carry in your body. Having more fat can expose you to more estrogen, a hormone that can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. Body composition plays a role as well. The goal is to be lean, meaning you have a relatively low body fat percentage and a higher lean muscle mass without being underweight. 

Ideally, adults try to maintain a healthy weight throughout their lives and avoid gaining extra weight. However, if you are overweight or obese, losing weight and improving your body composition can have health benefits and lower your risk for cancer. 

Research shows that physical activity and exercise can impact biological mechanisms in the body. Studies support that being more physically active can decrease inflammation and oxidative stress, improve immune function and alter exposure to sex hormones (such as estrogen). However, understanding the “how” physical activity impacts health in terms of biology gets very complicated, very quickly. We are learning more every day, but overall, the evidence supports that physical activity is crucial to health through a variety of biological mechanisms.

How active do you need to be to lower your risk?

Guidelines suggest 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week. What does that mean? Here we’ll explain three levels of physical activity “intensity”: low, moderate and high intensity. The intensity of an activity is determined by how much energy is needed to complete that activity, or how many calories are burned completing that activity. Any time we move our bodies, we’re burning calories, and any movement is better than no movement. 

Related: Interested in the science behind high intensity interval training?

Ideally, adults should aim to include both moderate and high intensity activity in their routines along with strengthening and stretching exercises. Low intensity activities (such as walking a dog or hatha yoga/stretching) should not be counted out, as this type of activity can have health benefits too, especially for older adults. 

Moderate intensity activities will increase your heart rate (while improving cardiorespiratory fitness), but you won’t be so out of breath that you can’t still hold a conversation. Examples of moderate intensity aerobic activities:

  • brisk walking (at least 2.5 miles per hour)
  • water aerobics
  • gardening
  • tennis (doubles)
  • biking slower than 10 miles per hour
  • weight lifting (depending on your effort)

High intensity activities require more effort. These activities will increase your heart rate even higher and make it more challenging to talk without losing your breath. Examples of high intensity aerobic activities:

  • hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack
  • running
  • swimming laps
  • tennis (singles)
  • cycling 10 miles per hour or faster
  • jumping rope
  • weight lifting (depending on your effort)
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Does the type of exercise matter?

The most important thing is to try to increase your amount of physical activity beyond your usual daily activity level. When it comes to specific activities, most of the research is focused on exercises that increase your heart rate as well as strength training.  

According to the American Heart Association, two or three 20- or 30-minute strength training sessions every week can result in significant health benefits, such as:

  • Increased muscle mass: We know that muscle mass naturally decreases as we age, but strength training can help slow or even reverse the trend.
  • Stronger bones: We know that strength training can help increase bone density, which reduces the risk of breaks or fractures.
  • Joint flexibility and balance: We know that strength training also helps with joint flexibility and balance. This can help in the long-term to reduce the symptoms of arthritis and injuries from falls.
  • Weight control: As discussed above, a lean body composition is recommended for cancer prevention. When you gain muscle, your body becomes better at burning calories, which can help reduce your overall weight by reducing body fat. 

What should women keep in mind when they exercise to reduce risk?

First and foremost, be safe. Consult your doctor before you start any exercise program. Next, remember that any physical activity is beneficial to your health. So, go walk the dog! Don’t forget, reducing your risk of cancer also includes eating a healthy diet and limiting alcohol intake.

Also, because research is ongoing, keep in mind that these recommended guidelines may change over time. However, it’s unlikely that further research will reveal that exercise is bad for you…We know it’s good for us! We’re just trying to learn more about the how and why. 

Are there any specific recommendations for women who are at a higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer?

At this time, there are no specific recommendations for women who are at a higher risk above and beyond those described above. The guidelines discussed in this article are recommended for all to improve health and reduce risk of cancer. Make sure to talk to a doctor before starting a new workout program, especially if you are recovering from something like a surgery.

The most important thing is to try to increase your amount of physical activity beyond your usual daily activity level. When it comes to specific activities, most of the research is focused on exercises that increase your heart rate as well as strength training.  

Elizabeth Hibler, PhD, MPH

What is research looking into next when it comes to exercise and cancer risk?

Research is ongoing to understand more about the biological mechanisms of physical activity in reducing cancer risk. For example, research is looking to address questions like: Is the same intensity and type of activity good for everyone, and, can we get to the point where we can identify and prescribe vigorous intensity for some people and moderate for others, based on their biology?

Join Team Bright Pink 

If you are interested in reducing your breast and ovarian cancer risk, consider joining Team Bright Pink to run the Chicago Marathon! FFC is the official training partner for Team Bright Pink and has helped runners train to finish a marathon for the past 8 years. When you join Team Bright Pink, you have access to FFC’s trainers and fitness instructors who can help you get fit and reduce your risk at the same time. We talked to FFC Exclusive Group Fitness Instructor (and Team Bright Pink alum!), Austin Head, about his tips for marathon training.

Related: Training Tips For A First Time Marathon Runner

For those interested in running for Team Bright Pink, or just running in general to reduce their risk, what kind of exercises do you recommend for runners? Specific moves?/activities?

Austin: There are a lot of great exercises that can benefits runners. When runners incorporate cross-training into their schedules, there are a few moves in particular that can help them prevent injuries over the course of their training: squats, deadlifts, planks, lunges and calf raises. 

A lot of people are leading pretty busy lives. What if you can’t get to the gym? Do you have any tips for working out at home?

Austin: Absolutely. When you have a busy schedule, it’s even more important to make an action plan for your training. And, if you miss a day in your training, don’t sweat it and pick back up where you left off.

If you can’t get to the gym, no problem. You can always go for a run outside, or if you want a strength workout, FFC just launched our FFC On Demand fitness app. This app gives you access to strength workouts that you can do on your own time right from your phone. You can try this free for 14 days at ffcondemand.com.

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It’s great to get moving – but it’s easy to go too hard too soon. How can you stay injury-free as you exercise?

Austin: Take your recovery days. I can’t stress that enough. This is something I personally struggle with too, but having days to recover is not only great for your body but your mind as well. Rest days are crucial to make sure you don’t get injured during your marathon training.

For more information on Team Bright Pink, please visit the Bright Pink website.

For more information, please visit the following sources that were referenced in this article:

American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity

Cancer Prevention Recommendations from the American Institute of Cancer Research

American Heart Association Recommendations For Physical Activity In Kids and Adults

Epidemiology and biology of physical activity and cancer recurrence

Impact of a diet and activity health promotion intervention on regional patterns of DNA methylation

Physical activity and breast cancer risk: the effect of menopausal status

Content provided by Bright Pink Medical Advisory Committee member Elizabeth Hibler, PhD, MPH, in partnership with FFC’s Natalie Casper and Austin Head.

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