TORONTO – For those who aren’t a fan of the gym, this may be a tough pill to swallow: two new studies this week are celebrating exercise – even walking for an hour a day – as a health hero as potent as medicine to stave off breast cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Following a large-scale, 17-year study, the American Cancer Society said Friday that walking for at least seven hours per week is linked to a 14 per cent lower risk of developing breast cancer after menopause.
Just days earlier on Wednesday, scientists at the London School of Economics and Harvard Medical School suggested that exercise is just as effective as medication for people managing heart disease and other chronic conditions.
The two studies add to a growing library of research pointing to exercise as a prime factor in healthy aging.
“Our findings are particularly relevant, as people struggle with conflicting information about how much activity they need to stay healthy,” Dr. Alpa Patel, leader of the ACS’s breast cancer study, said.
“Without any other recreational physical activities, walking on average of at least one hour per day was associated with a modestly lower risk of breast cancer. More strenuous and longer activities lowered the risk even more,” Patel said.
In this case, 73,615 postmenopausal women were followed since 1992. In that 17-year timeframe, 4,760 women were diagnosed with breast cancer.
If walking was their only physical activity, it was women who walked at least seven hours a week at about three miles per hour that lowered their risk of breast cancer by 14 per cent.
The most active women who took on more exercise were 25 per cent less likely to get breast cancer compared to the least active group.
Exercise helped all of the women even if they were a healthy weight, overweight or obese. They also had better odds even if they were taking hormone therapy.
The cancer society conceded that it’s still not fully understood why exercise lowers cancer risk, but it says it’s thought that physical activity helps to regulate hormones that would fuel cancer growth.
In the Harvard/LSE study, the researchers scoured the results of 305 trials that included nearly 340,000 people. In their findings, there was no statistical difference between exercise and drugs for helping patients with heart disease and prevention of diabetes.
In stroke patients, exercise was more effective than drugs. In congestive heart failure, drugs were most effective than all other types of treatment, including exercise.
But in this case, the scientists point out that most of the trials were based on drug therapy – of the 340,000 cases, only 15,000 patients had exercise-based treatments.
“What we don’t know about the benefits of exercise may be hurting us,” lead author Dr. Huseyin Naci said in a statement.
“It was also surprising to find that so little is known about the potential benefits of physical activity for health in so many other illnesses.”