Better to run than walk for breast cancer survivors? Expert doubts it

February 9, 2014 | by

Regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle – especially for breast cancer survivors. Not only has research shown that exercise helps lower the risk of breast cancer, it also increases the survival chances for women diagnosed with the cancer.

A new study suggests breast cancer survivors can get even greater reductions in breast cancer mortality by running, rather than walking.

A new study suggests breast cancer survivors who run have greater health benefits than those who walk.

Now a study in the International Journal of Cancer suggests that breast cancer survivors can get even greater reductions in breast cancer mortality by choosing a more robust exercise such as running, rather than walking.

Lead author Paul William of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said his research shows that exceeding the current exercise recommendations is probably better than simply meeting them, and that running may be better than walking.

“If I were a breast cancer survivor, I would certainly consider running or some other vigorous exercise over walking, and I wouldn’t just be doing the minimum, with the consequences and potential benefit being so great,” said William in a press release.

To come to this conclusion, William and his team followed 986 breast cancer survivors from the National Runners’ and Walkers’ Health Study for nine years. Nearly 300 were considered runners; more than 700 were considered walkers. During the study period, 33 of the walkers and 13 of the runners died from breast cancer.

Researchers found the risk for breast cancer mortality decreased an average of 24 percent for every mile of brisk walking or for every two-thirds of a mile of running.

When analyzing only the runners, researchers found that same amount of running reduced the risk of death by 40 percent. Runners who ran more than two and a quarter miles per day had a 95 percent lower risk of death.

But the study found only an association between vigorous exercise and lower death risk, not a correlation. That leaves some breast cancer experts unconvinced of the findings' overall merits.

One of those experts is Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D., director of the Division of Cancer Etiology at City of Hope.

Bernstein, who was one of the first scientists to make the connection between physical activity and breast cancer risk nearly two decades ago, told HealthDay that although the study’s message to exercise is a good one, the data used for the study lacks vital information.

For instance, she said, the study didn't control for whether or not the runners had less advanced disease than the walkers. She's unaware, she added, of other studies showing such a marked difference in survival between runners and walkers.

Bernstein advises breast cancer survivors to do what’s good for them, whether it’s running or walking. “I would say it's better to run than to walk because you spend more energy," Bernstein said. "But you can only do what's good for you. Older women will probably not want to run unless they have been running all along."

To get the most out of walking, it’s important to give your best effort. "If you walk, push yourself so you're out of breath," Bernstein said.