Now that we’ve moved our offices to Santa Monica, I’ve found a new way to add exercise to my day: biking to work from my home in Pacific Palisades. It’s about a 6-mile ride each way, it’s far from flat, and it has at least three great benefits. It gets my heart rate up, which will help keep my heart healthy. I’m getting vitamin D from the sun, which can help reduce my overall cancer risk. And I’m burning calories, which will help me control my weight during menopause.

It feels great to be on my bike. It also feels great to talk about the fact that I’m doing it! As you know, I’m dedicated to ending breast cancer. But as we do the work that will get us there, I also am doing my best to promote a lifestyle that will help women reduce their risk of getting this disease. (See, I really do practice what I preach!)

There’s also another important reason to try to squeeze this type of exercise into your day: The mounting evidence that regular exercise not only can help prevent breast cancer but also can help reduce the risk of a cancer recurrence.

Moreover, research shows that it’s not just the exercise that we do as adults that matters but the exercise that we do as we’re growing up.  In fact, a study in the May 21, 2008, issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that women who exercise in their teen years are less likely to develop premenopausal breast cancer than girls who spend most of their time sitting around.

Previous studies have found that exercise appears to reduce breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women, and that women who exercise after a breast cancer diagnosis may be less likely to have a cancer recurrence. This new study explored whether exercise that occurred during the teen years—when the breasts are going through an important developmental stage—had an impact on premenopausal breast cancer risk.

The researchers analyzed data from the Nurses Health Study II, a study that has been following 116,000 women since 1989 to see look at the relationship between diet and exercise and the risk of developing major health problems, like breast cancer. They looked specifically at the information they had colleted from 64,777 premenopausal women who had answered questions about their leisure time physical activity from age 12 to the present.

Overall, 550 premenopausal women developed breast cancer over the study’s six-year period. The researchers found that the more leisure-time physical activity a woman participated in, the lower her breast cancer risk. Specifically, women who spent the equivalent of about 3.5 hrs a week running or 13 hours a week walking had a 23% lower risk of developing premenopausal breast cancer than did women who were more sedentary.

The total amount of leisure time spent exercising appeared to matter more than the intensity of the exercise. Furthermore, exercise that occurred between the ages of 12 and 22 appeared to contribute most to the reduction in risk.

Of course, there are a few caveats. Because these women were nurses, about 90% of them also spent a good part of their working hours walking or standing. So, not only did they move around when they weren’t working, they were not as sedentary during the day as someone who spends most of their working hours at a desk or in front of a computer. It’s also possible that the women who exercised more had a healthier diet, which could have also played a role in reducing their risk. Lastly, the women were not questioned when they were teens; the survey they filled out asked them what they did when they were younger. And surveys that ask people to recall what they did (be it eat, drink, sleep, or exercise) at a certain point in their life are known to provide data that isn’t completely accurate.

That said, evidence abounds that exercise is necessary for children and teens and that the more exercise opportunities kids have at school and after-school the better off they will be now and in the future. That’s why it’s so important that we advocate for athletic programs in all of our elementary, middle and high schools.

So, don’t just take your daughter (or niece or neighbor) to work. Have her join you for a walk, a bike ride, or a swim.  Better yet, why not join her in a game of Wii or Dance, Dance Revolution.  The more you “move it, move it”—as the song says—the better off you both will be!

PS—If you see me on my bike, be sure to wave!

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