Sometimes the simplest solutions work best, even for reducing your risk for a disease as serious as breast cancer.
Researchers from the American Cancer Society have found a link between walking on a regular basis to a lower risk of developing breast cancer. Although obesity and being overweight are breast cancer risk factors, the study results applied whether or not the women were overweight and did not change even if the women gained weight during the study.
“Multiple studies prove that walking for exercise can decrease your risk of breast cancer,” says Traci McCormick, MD, an oncologist in Decatur, Alabama, specializing in breast cancer treatment. “It’s really incredible that such a simple thing can have such a huge impact on your health.”
The 2013 ACS study, published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, included over 73,000 postmenopausal women and found that those who walked at a leisurely pace of approximately 3 mph at least seven hours a week (an hour daily, on average) had a 14% lower risk of developing breast cancer than those who walked fewer than three hours a week. Those who exercised more vigorously and sweated for up to 10 hours a week—running, swimming or playing singles tennis—experienced even greater benefits: They lowered their cancer risk 25% more than the women who exercised the least.
Another study in the same journal, which included younger women, tested for estrogen levels and certain estrogen metabolites (substances formed from the breakdown of estrogen in the body) in the subjects’ urine. Prior studies showed a link between a heightened lifetime risk of breast cancer and a particular ratio of estrogen metabolites; levels of these metabolites rose and fell in the exercising group, which researchers believe indicate a lowered risk of breast cancer. In addition, these women gained muscle and lost body fat, and scientists concluded that physiological changes in the women’s bodies may make it harder for breast cancer to take hold.
Exercise in general, and walking specifically, helps reduce breast cancer risk in several ways. For one thing, says McCormick, “walking helps lower inflammation in the body,” which is a known risk for cancer.
What’s more, “walking burns calories and helps you maintain a healthy weight,” McCormick notes. Body fat produces and stores the hormone estrogen, which can be a catalyst for estrogen receptive-positive (ER-positive) breast cancer. The majority of breast malignancies are classified as ER-positive, meaning cancer cells grow in response to estrogen.
“Adipose (fat) tissue is a hormonally active system in the body,” says Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist at Memorial Care Cancer Institute, Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “It’s why obesity is a risk factor for breast cancer. Glucose (blood sugar) control and level of activity correlate with hormone-sensitive breast cancers.
Activity has a beneficial effect for all these things.” Postmenopausal women produce lower amounts of estrogen than premenopausal women, but the hormone is primarily produced mainly through fat cells, not the ovaries. This makes maintaining a healthy body weight even more important with age.
Moderate exercise is recommended, says Shikha Jain, MD, oncologist and hematologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “The key is to get your heart rate up, so brisk walking is beneficial this way. Plus, we advocate anything that helps with weight loss, especially around the abdominal area. We also encourage healthy eating for this reason.”
Jain suggests aiming for at least 30 minutes a day, or 150 minutes a week; kids and young adults should get an hour daily.
It’s important to keep in mind that although exercise is important, maintaining a healthy weight is the goal, says McCormick. “Walking is the most natural form of exercise and easy to do. You just walk out the door—even to your mailbox and back, if that’s all you can do to start. It’s fine to start with five minutes and work your way up.”
Moderate exercise such as brisk walking, by definition, means you’re exerting yourself at a level of “perceived exertion” of five to six on a 1 to 10 scale, says Karen Hock, physical therapist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus. Hock also suggests the following before starting an exercise program:
• Wear the appropriate footwear (such as walking shoes).
• If you are sedentary, begin easily with two to three minutes of walking.
• Consider exercising with a partner to help keep you motivated.
• Always check with your physician before starting a program.
“You do not have to do all of your exercise minutes at one time as you are starting a program,” says Hock. “You can integrate walking/physical activity into your daily activities. For example, park farther from the door, dance to a song while doing the dishes, etc.”
Lunging Toward Fitness
To keep motivated, it’s important to vary your routine and try new walking programs. “Cancer risk is an abstract concept,” says McCormick. “This makes it hard to get motivated because there’s no immediate reward.”
|More Walking Routines|
Want more variety in your walking program? Try one of the following programs;either may be done outside or on a treadmill.
1. Warm up by walking at a leisurely pace for 5 minutes.
2. Jog or sprint (depending on your fitness level) for 10 to 20 seconds.
3. Resume your original pace for 1 minute.
4. Repeat four to six times, depending on your fitness level.
5. Cool down with easy walking and stretching.
1. Warm up by walking at a leisurely pace 5 minutes.
2. Jog for 5 minutes at a low incline on a treadmill, 1% to 3%, or up a moderate hill if you’re outside.
3. Increase incline to 4% to 5% if on a treadmill and boost your pace by 1 to 2 mph.
4. Lower incline and slow to an easy pace for 2 minutes.
5. Repeat pattern for three total hill routines.
6. Finish with 5 minutes of light jogging or walking.
Different approaches also produce various benefits. For example, to keep blood sugar levels on an even keel, Wayne Caparas, author of BioLogic Revelation (Westbow Press), encourages walking enthusiasts to incorporate strategies that stimulate their blood sugar-scorching fast-twitch and superfast-twitch muscle fibers during their walks. “Since basic walking uses only slow-twitch muscle fibers regardless of the speed you walk, these two protocols can flip the switch to get our fast- and superfast-twitch fibers in the game,” says Caparas.
This includes “lunge walking,” which immediately recruits the fast-twitch fibers. Since these fibers fatigue at a very fast rate, they require rest typically within 24 strides (12 per leg), so a walker can mix in these lunge strides at any point during their walk, and return to a normal walking stride or even stop to fully recover before continuing with the walk, says Caparas.
Second, the walker would best stimulate their superfast-twitch fibers by performing these lunge strides in two to three intervals separated by as much time as needed to feel fully recovered from the previous interval, says Caparas. “You should never approach the point of failure (inability to rise back to the standing position on the last stride of the interval) until the very last lunge stride interval.”
A walking-lunge routine may look like this:
1. Warm up by walking at a slow to slow-moderate pace five to 10 minutes.
2. Lunge—stepping forward with one leg and lowering your hips until both knees are bent at about a 90° angle—and walk forward for 12 steps per leg, 24 total, or as many as you can do in good form.
3. Return to your normal walking pace to cool down; repeat these intervals one or more times, within your fitness capabilities.
“These protocols have been proven to ensure optimal blood sugar burn in these fastest-twitching fibers,” says Caparas. This, in turn, triggers a host of health benefits besides improved insulin sensitivity and increased strength, both of which are invaluable as cancer- protective approaches.
Don’t worry if you can’t complete a perfect lunge, says Caparas. “It can be a partial dip, a full dip where the knee makes gentle contact with the ground, or even a straddled stride where the walker brings their feet to a parallel standing position after each alternating lunge stride.”
In addition, these ideas help to make walking a regular part of your lifestyle habits:
• Challenge your walking partner to see how long you can carry on a debate without stopping.
• Mix up your routes by reversing it or trying a new trail altogether.
• Try skipping or power-walking intervals.
• Listen to books on tape.
• Walk your dog, or your neighbor’s dog if you don’t have one.
• Listen to music you only allow yourself to hear when you exercise.
• Tune into podcasts.
“Keep in mind it’s about a healthy lifestyle, not an isolated event (such as walking) on its own,” says Jacoub. “Poor dietary habits and other risk factors (such as smoking or drinking alcohol to excess) compound the problem.” Sustained, regular exercise such as brisk walking over a period of time can help you live longer while improving your chances of remaining cancer-free.