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Reduce the Risk of Cancer by Exercising

February 06 2017 - by Dr. Derrick Aarons, Consultant Bioethicist/Family Physician

If you were told that exercise will cut your risk for 13 cancers, would it encourage you to begin regular exercising?   If you were told that the intensity and length of exercise needed to prevent cancer would vary with the type of cancer, would that motivate you to put more effort into your exercises?  If you told all of this to your staff, your associates, and to your family, do you think they would be motivated to act?

The results of several research studies have now confirmed that exercise not only cuts your risk for some cancers, but also improves your survival after being diagnosed with cancer.   Exercise also reduces mortality (death) in those persons who survive cancer, as well as reduces the risk for some aggressive breast cancers known to afflict persons of African heritage.

Preventive Oncology

A pooled analysis of data from 1.44 million European and Americans that was published recently in the journal Internal Medicine (JAMA) revealed that higher levels of leisure-time physical activity are associated with a significantly lower risk of developing 13 of the 26 cancers that were reviewed.    The median age of persons was 59 years, and the median activity level was the equivalent of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorously-intense activity each week.  Persons who exercised more were more likely to be younger, more educated, have a lower body mass index, and less likely to be a current smoker.   

The risk reduction in the group ranged from 10 - 42%.    The affected cancers include oesophageal adenoncarcinoma (throat cancer), liver cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer, stomach cancer, endometrial (womb) cancer, myeloid leukemia, myeloma, colon cancer, head and neck cancer, rectal cancer, and breast cancer.  The data also suggested there was an association between increased physical activity and a reduced risk for gallbladder cancer, cancer of the small intestine, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (a cancer involving lymphatic tissue).  However, the risk for cancer of the prostate and melanoma (skin cancer) were not found to be affected by physical activity. 

During a median follow up of 11 years, there were 186,932 incident cases of cancer.  The researchers emphasized that these findings support the heavy promotion of physical activity as an important component of population-wide cancer prevention and control efforts.   However, further research will be needed into the underlying mechanisms for the association, and into the critical timing of exposure to exercise, as well as the types and amounts of activity that have the most impact.

Recommended Daily Activity

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA has strong recommendations for physical activity.  It recommends two types of physical activity each week to improve your health-aerobic and muscle-strengthening.   Aerobic activity is any activity that gets you breathing harder and your heart beating faster (‘cardio’).   All types of activities count (e.g. pushing a lawn mower, dancing, riding a bicycle) as long as you are doing them at a moderate or vigorous pace to get your heart rate increased for at least 10 minutes at a time.  

Adults need a total of two hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (e.g. brisk walking to ‘break a sweat’) every week plus muscle-strengthening activities (e.g. using weights) on two or more days in each week that work all the major muscle groups (i.e. legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms).   Alternately, persons could indulge in 75 minutes each week of vigorously-intense aerobic activity (e.g. jogging or running) plus the muscle-strengthening activities described above on two or more days a week.   There could also be an equivalent mixture of moderate-intensity (brisk walking) and vigorous-intensity exercises (running) that would be done along with the described muscle-strengthening activities. 

Plan to Live Longer

150 minutes (2 ½ hours) of exercise each week may sound like a lot of time for you, your staff, or your family to find, but it is not!    That is the same amount of time you spend in front of your TV watching a movie!   The good news is that you don’t have to do the exercise all at once, but can spread it out over the day.  If you are unable to find the time to do the recommended ½ hour of continuous exercise on any given day, then do 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there.  It all adds up.   Do what works best for you, as long as you are doing the physical activity at a moderate or vigorous pace for at least 10 minutes at a time.

As some of the cancers on the list are very rare and very deadly, your increasing your exercise activity will be a strategy that will reduce the risk for these types of cancers, and offer one of the best ways to promote health and wellness.  The message that exercise reduces cancer risk can be added to the already established evidence that exercise reduces the risk for heart disease.   This should become a standard public health message!   Please spread the word!

Derrick Aarons MD, PhD is a consultant bioethicist/family physician, a specialist in ethical issues in medicine, the life sciences and research, and is the Ethicist at the Caribbean Public Health Agency – CARPHA.  (The views expressed here are not written on behalf of CARPHA)

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Arlene McComie - Reply

Excellent article .  It places no pressure on you to do all the exercise at once - which all the Gym instructors try to make you do.  I have just restarted my exercise regime.  I have weights, I use my thread climber, and YouTube.  I started at 15 minutes every other day and I'm up to 20 minutes even if I may not feel like it on some days, I still exercise.  You feel great once you have done it.  

You also need to watch your nutrition intake and cut down on carbs and sugars.  You really must take responsibility for your own health and wellness.  If reduction re cancer is a benefit that is even better.