Objective: To review (1) the epidemiological literature on physical activity and the risk of breast cancer, examining the effect of the different parameters of activity and effect modification within different population subgroups; and (2) the biological mechanisms whereby physical activity may influence the risk of breast cancer.
Methods: A review of all published literature to September 2007 was conducted using online databases; 34 case-control and 28 cohort studies were included. The impact of the different parameters of physical activity on the association between activity and the risk of breast cancer was examined by considering the type of activity performed, the timing of activity over the life course and the intensity of activity. Effect modification of this association by menopausal status, body mass index (BMI), racial group, family history of breast cancer, hormone receptor status, energy intake and parity were also considered.
Results: Evidence for a risk reduction associated with increased physical activity was found in 47 (76%) of 62 studies included in this review with an average risk decrease of 25–30%. A dose-response effect existed in 28 of 33 studies. Stronger decreases in risk were observed for recreational activity, lifetime or later life activity, vigorous activity, among postmenopausal women, women with normal BMI, non-white racial groups, those with hormone receptor negative tumours, women without a family history of breast cancer and parous women.
Conclusions: The effect of physical activity on the risk of breast cancer is stronger in specific population subgroups and for certain parameters of activity that need to be further explored in future intervention trials.
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Funding: CF was supported by career awards from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research and AC received a Research Scholar Award from the Cancer Institute NSW, Australia while writing this review.
Competing interests: None declared.