Cancer and Exercise: How a Little Physical Activity Can go a Long Way

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Research shows exercise can help reduce the likelihood of chronic conditions, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and depression. However, a recent study, backed by the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, suggests getting physically active can also reduce your chances of developing cancer. The study considered 1.44 million participants from the United States and Europe, ranging in age from 19 to 98. It looked at a broad range of cancer types and followed the participants for about 11 years. During that time period, about 187,000 new cases of cancer developed. The biggest benefits in prevention were found in esophageal, liver and lung cancers. Most associations between physical activity and lower cancer risk changed little when adjusted for body mass index.

The study found physical activity lowered the risk of these 13 cancers:

  1. Esophageal cancer
  2. Liver cancer
  3. Lung cancer
  4. Kidney cancer
  5. Gastric cardia (stomach cancer)
  6. Endometrial cancer
  7. Myeloid leukemia
  8. Myeloma (a blood cancer)
  9. Colon cancer
  10. Head and neck cancer
  11. Rectal cancer
  12. Bladder cancer
  13. Breast cancer

For this study, physical activity is simply defined as movement to improve or maintain fitness. That includes running, walking, swimming and other more vigorous intensity activities.

“The study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine does not surprise me,” Andrew Nish, M.D., UnityPoint Health says. “We have always known the great benefits that exercise has on our bodies. This is just another benefit we can add to the list.”

3 Ways Exercise Helps Reduce Cancer Risk

Dr. Nish says while the exact science behind why exercise helps to prevent cancer is still unknown, studies show there are three main factors that are thought to help decrease the risk.

  1. Exercise changes and can lower hormone levels: One of the hormones impacted by exercise is estrogen, which in turn, lowers the risk for some breast and endometrial cancers.
  2. Exercise is thought to lower inflammation levels: The less the inflammation, the better the body can repair damaged cells.
  3. Exercise helps to regulate and lower our insulin levels: This is thought to help prevent certain cancers from developing.

“In general, exercise is the perfect medicine. It helps our cardiovascular system by improving our heart and lung efficiency and function. It increases lean body mass and strength, which in turn makes everything we do easier, and it also improves our brain function. Exercise helps us both physically and psychologically,” Dr. Nish says.

How to Get Started

If you want to start an exercise routine, it’s best to first consult with your primary care provider. Once you get the okay to begin, Dr. Nish suggests that you consider three questions.

  1. What type of physical activities do you enjoy?
  2. What would you like to do if there was nothing holding you back (like injury or illness)?
  3. What physical activities are difficult for you? 

The exercises you perform should be directed by these three questions. If your activity doesn’t match these questions, you probably will not enjoy that form of exercise and then likely won’t stick with it. If your exercises match these focuses, you’ll notice a difference in how you feel physically and mentally, but you’ll also notice how much easier your daily tasks become. An exercise routine is much more enjoyable when you see benefits to your daily life.

How to be Successful

The key here is to make a plan and stick to it. We are all busy, so Dr. Nish suggests you look at your work and family schedules ahead of time, and find the places where exercise fits. After you identify time in your schedule, no matter how big or small, write down exactly what you are going to do for your exercise routine. Then, tell someone about it. Dr. Nish says writing it down and verbalizing it makes you more accountable.

“Even people who feel they are too busy, have at least 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes at noon and 10 minutes after work for a few quick walks. If you are normally watching TV every night, know that one hour of TV usually has 20 minutes of commercials. Set a goal of exercising during every commercial. With this in mind, it’s really not difficult to hit the 30 minute daily exercise goal,” Dr. Nish says.

The national recommendation is that people perform a total of 150 minutes of physical activity every week. This doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon or do kickboxing, if you don’t like those activities. It can include walking, swimming or jogging. Dr. Nish says anything that elevates your heart rate will work.

“It’s better to exercise a little, than not at all. I think another key is to stay motivated. Find a friend or partner to exercise with so that each can hold the other accountable. Other ways to stay motivated include tracking your progress through fitness trackers, apps and online trackers. Many people use these as a way to reward themselves. For example, if I take 10,000 steps every day this week or work out four days in a row, I get a massage next week. Make sure to make the rewards both healthy and enjoyable,” Dr. Nish says.

How Exercise Helps During a Cancer Diagnosis

Dr. Nish says many times it depends where a patient is in his/her cancer journey that determines how exercise fits into a daily routine. Before surgery and right at diagnosis, patients would work on pre-habilitation. That includes range of motion, strength and physical stamina, which will help during the battle that’s ahead. Dr. Nish says this is when he and the patient often record pre-treatment measurements in hopes of achieving these again after treatment. During and after treatment, exercise is often used to help with side effects such as fatigue, neuropathy or balance and weakness concerns.

“Some people have a genetic link to cancer. Exercise provides them a way to take back some of that control. Being in better shape at diagnosis will help you better handle treatments and surgery. It’s very important for someone that is at a greater risk of cancer to exercise and do all they can to stay healthy,” Dr. Nish says.

For all persons, exercise should be coupled with good nutrition. This means eating 5-7 servings of vegetables and 1-2 servings of fruit daily along with lean cuts of meat and tree nuts. Elimination of all added sugar and sugar substitutes, refined and highly processed grains, processed foods and fast foods is key to good nutrition.

If you want to begin an exercise routine or have questions about how it can help lower your cancer risks, talk to your UnityPoint Health primary care provider.