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For breast cancer survivors, study finds running may be better than walking

Jan. 30, 2014

New research suggests that running might have more benefits than walking for women who have had breast cancer.

In some previous studies, women who exercised after a breast cancer diagnosis had improved survival rates compared to those who didn’t. In a new study, running was linked to better survival rates than walking for women with a breast cancer diagnosis. These results suggest that vigorous exercise might be more beneficial than moderate exercise for women who have had breast cancer.

Researcher Paul Williams of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory followed 986 breast cancer survivors for an average of nine years after their diagnosis. All of the women exercised: 272 were runners, and 714 were walkers. During the nine-year followup period, 46 of the women died from breast cancer: 13 runners and 33 walkers.

To compare exercise habits, Williams measured exercise using metabolic equivalent (MET) hours per day. For walkers, one MET hour was approximately 1.5 kilometers of brisk walking. For runners, one MET hour was about one kilometer of running. The recommended amount of exercise for adults is 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of exercise per week, which is equivalent to 1.1 to 1.8 MET hours per day in this study.

In the whole group (both runners and walkers combined), women who exercised the most had lower risk of dying from breast cancer. The average decrease in breast cancer mortality risk for each MET hour per day was 24 per cent. Women who did more than twice the recommended amount of exercise had a 69 per cent lower risk of dying from breast cancer, compared to women who did the recommended amount of exercise.

When the runners were compared to the walkers, the runners had a far bigger drop in mortality risk from breast cancer for each MET hour per day, compared to the walkers. In the runners, each MET hour per day decreased mortality risk by 41 per cent. In the walkers, each MET hour per day decreased mortality risk by 5 per cent, which was not a significant drop.

In the runners, the benefits increased with the amount of exercise. Compared to women who ran less than the recommended 1.1 MET hours per day, those who met the recommendations had 14 per cent lower mortality risk from breast cancer. Those who exceeded the recommendations had 87 per cent lower risk, and those who got more than double the recommended amount of exercise through running had 95 per cent lower mortality risk than those who did not meet the recommendations.

The study results suggest that vigorous exercise, such as running, is linked to greater benefits for breast cancer survivors than moderate exercise like walking. The results also indicate that exercising vigorously for more than the recommended 2.5 hours per week has greater benefits than just meeting the recommendations.

The study was published in the International Journal of Cancer.

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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital