Exercise and cancer: an introduction

Exercise matters!

Being physically active is good for us. In fact, it is essential – the moment we immobilise any part of our body for a prolonged period of time – a plaster cast for a broken leg – the muscles get smaller and weak, our joints become stiff and our movements restricted. We need to move to be healthy. Physical activity is not only for physical health, but also our mental health and can improve the functioning of our immune system.

Any movement is good. Formal exercise takes things to another level and involves activity to specifically increase the heart rate and how much blood is pumped round the body, increase muscle activity and/or muscle tension against resistance. It may also involve stretching, which lends itself to being combined with relaxation techniques.

Physical activity and cancer risk.
There are many studies showing that the people who are physical active are less likely to get cancer. The evidence is strongest for bladder, breast, colon, endometrial, oesophageal adenocarcinoma, renal, and gastric cancers, while there is moderate evidence for lung cancer and limited data for some other cancers, including blood cancers. Some studies also show that the more active you are, the lower your risk of cancer; but any activity is better than none! These studies are referred to as “epidemiological”, and they cannot by themselves prove that it is the physical activity that is directly decreasing the cancer risk – it could be related to some other reason(s) that the researchers did not measure.

How can exercise reduce the risk of cancer?
Physical activity leads to biological changes that have an anti-cancer effect: reducing inflammation, weight and insulin resistance, changing body composition and sex hormone levels…There are also multiple, and obvious, health benefits of physical activity: weight reduction, improved heart function and blood pressure, greater energy levels, better mood and mental health etc
Simply put, being active is very good for you! But what if you have been diagnosed with cancer…

Cancer and exercise.
Movement is good for you – even more so if you are dealing with cancer. The effects of cancer, combined with the treatments you may receive, increase the risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, overweight, mental health problems and more. So, all the general health benefits of physical activity are just as important when you have cancer, and, living well beyond cancer.

Will physical activity improve my response to cancer treatment?
Yes. There are studies showing benefits on cancer outcomes, specifically for people with breast and colon cancers, but also weaker evidence for prostate cancer. The studies have not been done looking at all the different cancer types. This lack of “evidence” for all possible types of cancer does not mean physical activity should be ignored. In fact, as discussed above, there are obvious benefits to be as active as you can for your general health and wellbeing, but also to be able to cope with the effects of the cancer and your treatments.

Is it safe for me to exercise with cancer?
Yes, it is safe. Moreover, as discussed above, all movement is good, no matter how little. Being active does not have to mean running, jogging, cycling, swimming, going to the gym or other “intensive” forms of exercise – although any such activities are all good. Depending on your specific situation, this can vary from simply standing up at regular intervals, walking around your bed, stretching, going up- and downstairs in the house, yoga, Pilates, going for walks (taking the dog perhaps, )

How much exercise can make a difference?
The answer is simple – any physical activity can help. If you are someone who does not exercise, then the idea of suddenly going to the gym 5 times a week is unlikely to appeal. More importantly, it is not necessary. A large, UK study, investigated “vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA)” in people who did not exercise (average age was 62 years old). VILPA refers to brief and sporadic (up to 1-2 minutes) activity during daily living, such as short bursts of very fast walking or going quickly upstairs. With 1-minute bursts of activity, repeated to add up to a total of 4.5 minutes a day, there was a reduced risk of cancers that are known to be affected by physical activity, but also to a lesser degree in all types of cancer. Another study found that activity equivalent to 2.5 – 5.0 hours/week of moderate-intensity activity (eg, brisk walking) was associated with a lower risk for breast, colon (men only), endometrial, kidney, myeloma, and liver cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (women only).

For people with colon cancer, the equivalent of walking 6 or more hours per week at an average pace was associated with a 47% improvement in disease-free survival.

Physical activity is cancer’s enemy!
Movement, physical activity, formal exercise are all in your control. It is your choice to be active and move towards better health, or be inactive. As always, it is the power of the ordinary – even small steps (quite literally) to increased physical activity, that you can achieve and maintain, will make a difference. Make this a normal part of daily life and then build upon your success.


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