These Lifestyle Habits Protect Against Breast Cancer

by Rita Carey Rubin, MS, RD, CDCES, Host of YRMC’s Your Healthy Kitchen

Today, 1 in 8 women living in the U.S. will develop breast cancer in their lifetimes, according to data cited by the American Cancer Society. That’s why it’s so important to do everything you can to reduce your risk. 

Experts agree that women (and men) can lessen the likelihood of getting breast cancer by moving more and sitting less every day; working up a sweat a few times a week; building some muscle; and cutting back on alcohol. Research shows that Americans could prevent 1 in 3 cases of breast cancer with healthy lifestyle habits.

Move More and Sit Less

Physical activity tops the list of lifestyle practices that provide protection to women and men at every age. According to a study released in 2017 by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund, 150 minutes per week of regular moderate activity reduces the risk of breast cancer in pre- and post-menopausal women by about 13% when compared to sedentary individuals. An example of moderate activity is walking at a pace that causes a slight increase in heart rate and deeper than normal breathing.

Vigorous workouts — exercise that causes a faster heart rate and some sweating — boosts protection for pre-menopausal women to 17%. Other studies suggest even higher rates of protection when individuals increase exercise time to up to 300 minutes per week.

Moving more and sitting less throughout the day and engaging in regular physical activity likely reduces the risk of breast cancer. This lowers inflammation in the body (a risk factor for many types of cancer and other chronic diseases), decreases insulin resistance (which lowers blood glucose and insulin levels in the blood), improves immune function, and reduces circulating levels of estrogen. Some research suggests a sedentary lifestyle, or one with little to no physical activity, is a major risk factor for breast and other types of cancer.

Takeaway tips:

  • Shoot for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week. 
  • If you are new to physical activity, start with 5-10 minutes of activity at a time and gradually build your strength and stamina.  
  • Always check with your doctor before engaging in any new exercise plan.
  • Get up every hour and do some walking, stretching or other movement for 5 minutes if your lifestyle and job are sedentary.
  • If you tend to be active only during certain seasons, plan to continue some type of regular, enjoyable movement year round.
  • Because physical activity throughout life reduces the risk of breast and other types of cancer, encourage children to engage in regular physical activity they enjoy and can continue into adulthood.

Muscle Up After Menopause

Multiple studies show that reducing body fat (especially abdominal fat) while increasing muscle mass can lower breast cancer risk in women after menopause.  According to a study by the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, higher levels of body fat seem to be related to lower breast cancer risk in younger women, while weight and fat gain after menopause increases risk. 

While the reasons for this are not totally clear, researchers think that body fat protects breast tissue from excessive estrogen production in younger years, but increases exposure after menopause.

Takeaway tips:

  • Maintain a healthy percentage of body fat throughout your lifetime.
  • Keep physically active after menopause, and be sure to include strengthening exercises that build muscle and reduce body fat. 

Limit Alcoholic Beverages

According to the American Cancer Society, even small amounts of alcohol may increase a women’s risk of breast cancer. Ethanal, the by-product of alcohol metabolism, can directly damage the DNA in cells, potentially leading to cancer growth and spread. Alcohol also raises estrogen levels in the blood, which increases risk of some breast cancer types.

Takeaway tips:

  • Consider limiting alcohol to three drinks per week or fewer. One drink is equal to 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
  • Enjoy fun and refreshing “mocktails” for non-alcoholic treats.
  • Some physicians recommend that women at high risk of breast cancer avoid alcohol altogether.

No one can predict exactly what combination of factors might lead to the growth and spread of breast cancer cells. However, good and extensive research shows that healthy lifestyle habits offer significant protection against this debilitating and potentially deadly disease.

You can learn more about breast cancer, preventive testing, treatment and local resources by visiting Yavapai Regional Medical Center’s BreastCare Center at

Photo: Rita Carey Rubin, MS, RD, CDCS