Physical activity is defined as skeletal muscle contraction resulting in a quantifiable expenditure of energy, whereas exercise is a specific type of physical activity in which planned, structured, and repetitive bodily movement is done to improve or maintain one or more components of physical fitness. The focus of laboratory studies of the physical activity-breast cancer hypothesis has been on evaluating how various types of physical activity including exercise affect the process of mammary carcinogenesis. A key objective has been the evaluation of the characteristics of physical activity, i.e. intensity, duration, and frequency, required to confer protection against experimentally-induced breast cancer. The results of those studies indicate that exercise rather than physical activity can exert a greater inhibitory effect against experimentally-induced breast cancer, and that the duration of exercise may not be as important as its intensity. This finding differs from evidence that other health benefits attributed to physical activity are proportional to the total amount of activity rather than the manner in which it is obtained. In this review criteria are defined for categorizing laboratory studies into those that investigated the effects of physical activity versus exercise on experimentally-induced mammary carcinogenesis, and the literature is reinterpreted in this context.