6 Findings on Exercise and Cancer Risk

man on treadmill with doctor

You know that exercise is good for you. You’ve probably heard how it’s healthy for your heart and bones. 

But did you know that exercise also plays a strong role in lowering your cancer risk? It does. For people of all ages, being active is one of the most important things that you can do for your health, according to the most recent government guidelines.

Here are six of the latest research findings you should know about physical activity and cancer.

1. Activity lowers risk of breast, other cancers.
AICR's new report on breast cancer, released in May, found strong evidence that physical activity lowers risk for this cancer. Previous AICR reports have found strong evidence that regular physically activity lowers risk of cancers of the colon and endometrium. For all these cancers, the analyses of studies from around the world were consistent and clear.

Whether activity lowers risk a modest amount or more depends a lot of factors, such as the type of cancer and amount of activity. For example, the new report found that total moderate activity, such as walking and gardening, links to a 13 percent lower risk of post-menopausal breast cancer when comparing women who were the most active to those who were least active.

There is less evidence but still suggestive trends that exercise lowers risk of other cancers as well, including esophageal and liver cancers.

2. Aim for at least 30 a day.
In general, the more activity, the lower the risk. (Although like other healthy habits, too much isn’t good either. And after a point, those high amounts of exercise don't seem to add more cancer protection.) For overall health, government guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes a week of moderate activity and twice a week for strength training. For lower cancer risk, AICR recommends being moderately physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.

AICR's New American Plate Challenge: 12 Weeks to a Healthier You!

For inspiration to fit activity into your day, sign up for our New American Plate Challenge.

3. Pick the right activity. That means whatever you’ll do.
Most of the studies on activity and cancer focus on aerobic activities, which quickens your breathing and heart rate. (Research on cancer prevention and weight training is a relatively new and emerging field.) These studies include everything from walking the dog and playing tennis to jogging and moving about at work. No matter what the type of exercise studied, being at least moderately active is the key to lowering risk.

Activity in studies is generally calculated by METs (metabolic equivalent of task), meaning the amount of calories you burn while doing an activity. Sitting still has a MET of about 1. Moderate activity means anything that gets you moving three to six times more than when you’re sitting still. Brisk walking, gardening, and water aerobics are typically in the moderate intensity range. Vigorous activity gets you moving over six times as much as sitting still. Jumping rope, running and bicycling fast are all vigorous.

However much you do and for how long, research shows that something is better than nothing. Find an activity you like, build activity into your day, and mix it up to help you enjoy and stick to being active.

4. For weight management - activity helps. That’s important for cancer risk.
To lose weight, research shows that what you eat has a much greater impact than exercise. Eating a healthy diet, packed with fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods and drinks to keep your calories relatively low is the most important change to make for weight loss. And getting towards a healthy weight is important, because overweight and obesity increase the risk of 11 cancers.

Yet physical activity plays a crucial role in weight management. It can help burn extra calories as you’re working to lose weight. And after weight loss, being active can keep you from regaining those lost pounds. It can also help you avoid the gradual weight gain that is common with aging.
 
5. There are lots of ways activity may lower cancer risk.

Weight management is likely part of the reason why physical activity lowers cancer risk, yet research clearly shows that activity protects against cancer independent of weight.
Regular physical activity helps keep insulin and sex hormones such as estrogen at healthy levels. Studies suggest it decreases chronic inflammation, a factor associated with many cancers. Physical activity also appears to improve immune function and keep your digestive system healthy.


6. Being active also helps survivors
The growing community of cancer survivors has led to new studies related to exercise, both its safety and how it can help. The most recent recommendations by the American College of Sports Medicine say that after a cancer diagnosis, survivors should first aim to avoid inactivity, even while going through treatment. When able, cancer survivors should work towards getting the same amount of exercise the government recommends for the average person. Emerging research suggests that activity can help with daily tasks, quality of life and mental and physical health.

Before, during and soon after treatment, individuals diagnosed with cancer may need supervision or specific adjustments to exercise safely so patients should check with their health care team.

After treatment, AICR recommends survivors follow the same strategies as those for primary cancer prevention, aiming for 30 minutes (or more) a day of moderate activity.


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