Medline: 8072034

Journal of the National Cancer Institute 86(18): 1403-1408, 1994.

Physical exercise and reduced risk of breast cancer in young women.

Bernstein L, Henderson BE, Hanisch R, et al.


Epidemiologic evidence strongly suggests that cumulative exposure to ovarian hormones is a determinant of breast cancer risk. Because physical activity can modify menstrual cycle patterns and alter the production of ovarian hormones, it may reduce breast cancer risk; yet few epidemiologic studies have assessed this relationship.

The major objective of this study was to determine whether young women (aged 40 and younger) who regularly participated in physical exercise activities during their reproductive years had a reduced risk of breast cancer.

Using a case-control design, we conducted personal interviews of a total of 545 women (aged 40 and younger at diagnosis) who had been newly diagnosed with in situ or invasive breast cancer between July 1, 1983, and January 1, 1989, and a total of 545 control subjects. Case patients and control subjects were individually matched on date of birth (within 36 months), race (white), parity (nulliparous versus parous), and neighborhood of residence. Lifetime histories of participation in physical exercise activities on a regular basis were obtained during the personal interview.

After adjustment for potential confounding factors, we found that the average number of hours spent in physical exercise activities per week from menarche to 1 year prior to the case patient's diagnosis was a significant predictor of reduced breast cancer risk (two-sided P for trend < .0001). The odds ratio (OR) of breast cancer among women who, on average, spent 3.8 or more hours per week participating in physical exercise activities was 0.42 (95% confidence limits [CLs] = 0.27, 0.64) relative to inactive women. The effect was stronger among women who had had a full-term pregnancy. Comparing most active (> or = 3.8 hours/wk of exercise) women to inactive women, the ORs were 0.28 (95% CL = 0.16, 0.50) for parous and 0.73 (95% CL = 0.38, 1.41) for nulliparous women.

Most previously identified risk factors for breast cancer are reproductive and menstrual events that cannot be readily altered. The protective effect of exercise on breast cancer risk in the women whom we studied suggests that physical activity offers one modifiable lifestyle characteristic that may substantially reduce a woman's lifetime risk of breast cancer. IMPLICATIONS: Whether the protective effects of exercise on breast cancer risk are due to alterations in ovarian function and whether they extend into women's menopausal years need to be established. Our results suggest that implementation of regular physical exercise programs as a critical component of a healthy lifestyle should be a high priority for adolescent and adult women.

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Dr. G. Quade