Exercise may boost breast-cancer survival rates

At least among overweight and obese women, being active in the year before diagnosis was found to reduce patients' risk of death.

Published September 11, 2006 11:00PM (EDT)

Doctors have had a tough time pinpointing lifestyle factors that will improve a woman's breast-cancer prognosis; in general, survival rates are improving because of improvements in detection and treatment, not because of healthy changes women are making. Understandably, many women wish there was something they could do to keep from getting breast cancer, or, failing that, for strategies to improve their prognoses. And, hooray, new research seems to suggest that exercise will help, at least in the latter category: "Recreational physical activity in the year before a diagnosis of breast cancer seems to have a positive influence on the prognosis of young women who are overweight or obese when they are diagnosed," Reuters reported today.

The finding, which will be published in the October 15 issue of the journal Cancer, is based on a two-year study of 1,264 women between 20 and 54 years old. Researchers found that women in the top exercise quartile -- those who had exercised most frequently and vigorously -- had better survival rates than those in the bottom quartile. The benefit really only seemed to apply to women who were overweight or obese when they were diagnosed; such women saw a 30-percent reduction in their risk of death from breast cancer, whereas women who were at their ideal weight or were underweight when they were diagnosed saw no real benefit from being active. Interestingly, the patients' activity levels earlier in life seemed to have little bearing -- the benefit to overweight and obese women corresponded only to their activity level in the year before they were diagnosed. Since one can't be sure if or when a diagnosis will come, the lesson seems to be that heavy women who worry about breast cancer should plan on a long-term exercise program.

It's nice to be reminded of the reasons to exercise beyond simply reducing one's physical size. And of course, women of all sizes would do well to get off the couch, since exercise also helps prevent the leading cause of death among women: heart disease.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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