African-American women who participate in vigorous exercise may reduce their risk of breast cancer, according to data presented at the AACR Conference on The Science of Cancer Health Disparities.

For the study, led by Vanessa Sheppard, PhD, a cancer control scientist and assistant professor in the department of oncology at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, researchers identified 97 recently diagnosed African-American breast cancer patients and matched them with 102 African-American women without breast cancer. The research team analyzed and compared the participants’ responses to questionnaires about exercise routines. In the study, more than 2 hours of aerobics, running, or similar activity over the span of a week counted as vigorous activity.

The findings revealed that women who exercised vigorously for longer than 2 hours a week in the past year had a 64% reduced risk of breast cancer compared to women who did not exercise. Researchers also reported that women who engaged in moderate exercise, like walking, had a 17% reduced risk, compared to women who were sedentary.

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“We also know from other studies that being physically active can have benefits in other diseases that occur at high rates in African-American women, such as diabetes and hypertension,” Dr. Sheppard added. “Four out of five African-American women are either overweight or obese, and disease control is a particularly important issue for them.”

In addition, when the researchers examined the effect of total physical activity, which combined walking with vigorous activity of 2 or more hours per week, they saw significant gains for both premenopausal and postmenopausal women.

“We suggest that our findings, while promising, should be interpreted with caution. This is a pilot study and a larger, more rigorous study is needed to precisely quantify the effect of exercise on development of breast cancer,” Dr. Sheppard concluded. “I think it is fair to conclude that if African-American women exercise, they can help take charge of their health.”