Exercise boost for heart health in breast cancer survivors

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  Last updated January 23, 2018 at 3:47 pm


A mix of aerobic and resistance training boosts heart health for breast cancer survivors after treatment.

Napha Phyakulquach works out after undergoing cancer treatment. Credit: Christina Gandolfo

Nine out of 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer are sill alive five years after diagnosis.  Yet breast cancer survivors have on average lower life expectancy, with death not necessarily caused by the cancer.

“Many people don’t know the number one cause of death for breast cancer survivors is heart disease, not cancer,” said Christina Dieli-Conwright, researcher from the University of Southern California and author of a new study looking at the role of exercise on heart health.

Increased weight gain over the course of cancer treatment is one of the culprits.

Weight gain during treatment is normal and can happen for a number of reasons including early menopause brought on by treatment, a side-effect of chemotherapy or reduced activity due to fatigue from treatment.

Weight gain increases the risk of “metabolic syndrome” – a collection of symptoms like excess body fat, high blood pressure and high triglycerides that is known to increase the risk of heart disease.

Exercise is key to improving long-term health

In this study 100 breast cancer survivors who had completed treatment less than six months before were split into a control and exercise group.

The exercise group had three one-on-one training sessions per week over four months.

The program included resistance training with weights and at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise.

As you might have predicted, the women who exercised lost fat and gained muscle. They also reduced their risk of heart disease. Blood pressure decreased by 10% and “good cholesterol” (high-density lipoproteins) increased by 50%.

After the four-month program only 15% of the women who had exercised had metabolic syndrome compared to 80% in the control group.

While this is a small study and only measured heart health indicators over the short-term, it’s long been known that exercise can be beneficial in preventing cancer and improving heart health.

Previous studies have estimated that a quarter of all cancer cases could be prevented if Australians adopted healthier lifestyles.

Even when diagnosed, Prehabilitation – excercising before cancer surgery, can also improve patient’s rates of recovery.

“Exercise is a form of medicine,” Dieli-Conwright said. The authors of the study recommend that exercise programs be incorporated into breast cancer treatment and survivorship plans, a move supported by The Breast Cancer Network of Australia, who recognise that exercise is one of the “cheapest and most rewarding ways to help yourself”.

Further reading:

Exercise is the anti-ageing ‘cure’ for the heart

Fat Chance: Obesity and Cancer Risk

New algorithm could diagnose multiple cancers with a single blood test

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About the Author

Lisa Bailey