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Healthy Lifestyle to reduce risk of breast cancer

18 October, 2022

Author: David Sheill, Staff Grade in Early Detection Lymphedema, Health and Social Care Professions

Breast Cancer in Ireland

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the world, representing a significant global health challenge. In Ireland, approximately 35 men and 3,500 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year (Irish Cancer Society). Therefore, we must recognise the healthy lifestyle factors that can decrease our risk of developing breast cancer.

How can we reduce our risk of developing Breast Cancer?

There are things you can and can't change that add up to your risk of breast cancer. In general, a ‘healthy lifestyle’ can facilitate our body to stay healthy and illness free, but what does this healthy lifestyle consist of?

The cornerstone of living a healthy lifestyle is completing regular physical activity. Many studies have shown that physically active women have a lower risk of breast cancer than inactive women. Specifically, moderate-intensity physical activity is associated with reduced risk of breast cancer by up to 30%. Physical activity has been associated with similar reductions in risk of breast cancer among both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Physical activity also helps maintain a healthy BMI which has been shown to reduce our risk. In addition to this, healthy habits such as reduced alcohol intake and quitting smoking, healthy eating all play a big role in managing cancer risk.

How does exercise help prevent cancer?

Exercise alone has numerous positive effects on the body: improving heart health; improving circulation, facilitating hormone regulation to name a few. In addition to general health benefits, exercise can also help reduce our risk of developing cancer through many ways. In particular, when we exercise our body releases antioxidants which protect our bodies cells against dangerous cells which can lead to cancer if they grow in number. The immune system is also boosted through exercise, allowing our bodies to protect against dangerous cancer cells.

How much exercise should I be doing?

In order to meet the weekly physical activity guidelines recommended for adults in Ireland, we must include aerobic activity, strength training and flexibility work. It may be useful to consult a physiotherapist or personal trainer to help you make a plan to meet these goals.

Aerobic Activity

This is any type of activity which increases your heart rate and the body’s use of oxygen, such as brisk walking, gardening, dancing, cleaning, yoga or Pilates. The recommendation is to engage in moderate intensity activity for 30 minutes 3 times in the week. Moderate intensity would mean we are performing at a level at which we could talk but not sing during the activity. In general, we should be able to say a few words without pausing for a breath.

Strength Training

This is any type of training which involves weighted exercises eg. using handheld weights, resistance bands or bodyweight. It is important to complete these sessions on two non-consecutive days if possible. For general fitness, 8-12 repetitions for each exercise using the main muscle groups will help individuals maintain healthy muscles.

Flexibility Training

When we exercise and strengthen or bodies, we must also remember to stretch on a regular basis. When we stretch, we can complete ‘static’ stretching or ‘dynamic stretching. When completing a static stretch we should hold the stretch for 10-20 seconds around four times. While dynamic stretching allows us to complete a stretch in an active way.

heathy lifestyle exercises

Top Tips for Reaching Exercise Goals

  • Planning: look at your week ahead, assess the time you have to complete exercise. *Not enough time: can exercise be incorporated into your day? Try cycling to work / walking to the shop.
  • Record: Sometimes we are not aware if we are meeting our exercise needs. Try monitoring our activity using a pedometer or activity log and assess if we are meeting the guidelines for our demographic.
  • Gradual Progression: Ensure we build up our tolerance to exercise. Start with a manageable intensity or load and gradually increase the difficulty. Overdoing our exercise load can do more harm than good.

By Chartered Physiotherapist David Sheill


Physical Activity Guidelines – HSE

Physical activity and cancer | Irish Cancer Society

Fakhri, N., Chad, M. A., Lahkim, M., Houari, A., Dehbi, H., Belmouden, A., & El Kadmiri, N. (2022). Risk factors for breast cancer in women: an update review. Medical oncology (Northwood, London, England)39(12), 197.