Beyond Vassar

Alumnae Health Study Shows Benefit of College Exercise

In 1981, Vassar alumnae were among nearly 5,400 college alumnae who participated in one of the first studies of women’s health in the United States. The research focused on the effects of college and precollege athletic activity on the long-term health of women. 

The findings of that study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, were that “former college athletes had a significantly lower prevalence (lifetime occurrence) of breast cancer and reproductive system cancers as compared to their less active classmates.” Grace Wyshak, principal investigator on the study, also reports that former athletes had fewer instances of benign tumors of the breast and diabetes. There was no difference between the two groups in the occurrence of bone fractures in the menopausal years and no difference in fertility.

In 1996/97, a follow-up study was conducted on the same group of women; responses were received from 3,940. In February of this year, the British Journal of Cancer published the new results, which confirmed the earlier study; former college athletes had a significantly lower risk of breast cancer than the nonathletes. “Athletic activity during the college and pre-college years is protective against breast cancer throughout the life span, and more markedly among women under 45,” the researchers report.

The survey population included alumnae from the “Seven Sisters” colleges, Springfield, University of Southern California, and the University of Wisconsin. 

The researchers invite those who would like copies of the article to e-mail them at or call 617.432.4889.