Cancer is a scary word. Even though more people die of heart disease, cancer is the disease that strikes fear in most people’s hearts. Genetics play a role in who gets cancer – but so does lifestyle. Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables works in your favor, but there’s lots of evidence that another lifestyle habit lowers the risk of certain types of cancer – exercise. Here are five cancers you can lower your risk for by exercising regularly.
A number of studies show that exercise reduces the risk of breast cancer. In fact, over 30 studies have documented the breast cancer protective effects of physical activity. Lower intensity exercise like walking offers some protective advantages but more intense exercise seems to offer the most benefits.
How does exercise reduce the risk of breast cancer? It lowers levels of sex hormones like estrogen that stimulate breast cells to grow and proliferate. It also lowers insulin levels and IGF-1, a protein that promotes the growth of breast cancer cells. Plus, exercise reduces the risk of obesity, another risk factor for breast cancer.
Uterine cancer, like breast cancer, is linked with exposure to estrogen. In a study carried out by Yale School of Public Health, researchers found that women who did a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise a week lowered their risk for uterine cancer even if they were above their ideal body weight. Women who are overweight or obese are at greater risk for uterine cancer and exercise offers a way for them to reduce their risk for uterine cancer.
Colon cancer is now the fourth most common cancer in the United States. The biggest risk factors, other than genetics are being overweight and inactive. A study carried out at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Harvard University showed that adults who are the most physically active lowered their risk of colon cancer by 24% compared to those who were sedentary. Other studies show that exercise reduces the risk of colon cancer by up to 70%. All types of exercise appear to offer some protective benefits including job-related physical activity.
Why exercise protective? One theory is that exercise speeds up the movement of food through the colon so toxins are eliminated more quickly. The take-home message? Keep working out but stay active throughout the day as much as possible. All forms of physical activity count when it comes to lowering your risk for colon cancer.
We think of lung cancer as being a smoker’s disease but 20% of women who develop lung cancer are non-smokers. Plus, women seem to be more susceptible to cancer-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke and in the environment. Some studies suggest that the hormone estrogen plays a role since the lungs have estrogen receptors.
A large study involving almost 37,000 women showed that women who were the most physically active were less likely to develop lung cancer than those who were sedentary. One theory is that exercise improves ventilation and perfusion of the lungs so that pollutants and toxins can be removed more quickly. Exercise reduces the risk of lung cancer even among non-smokers, but “kicking the habit” is still the best defense against lung cancer.
Ovarian cancer is difficult to cure because it’s usually diagnosed at a later stage. Evidence for the protective benefits of exercise is weaker than with the other four types of cancer but research does point to likely benefits.
One study published in the International Journal of Cancer showed that moderate exercise such as walking at a brisk pace most days of the week lowered ovarian cancer risk. One way exercise may help is by helping women stay slim and trim. A number of studies show that obesity is a risk factor for ovarian cancer.
The Bottom Line?
Now you have one more reason to stay active. There are so many health benefits linked with exercise that it’s one habit you can’t afford to give up – and why would you want to? It’s one of the best things you can do for your health.
Medscape.com. “For All Body Types, Exercise May Reduce Endometrial Cancer Risk”
Science Daily. “People Who Exercise Lower Their Risk of Colon Cancer”
Am. J. Epidemiol. (2003) 158 (6): 564-575. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwg186.
American Association for Cancer Research. “Exercise Can Reduce a Smoker’s Lung Cancer Risk, but Quitting Smoking Is Still Most Important”
WebMD. “Exercise May Cut Ovarian Cancer Risk”
Monninkhof EM, et al. Epidemiol 2007;18:137–57.
Science Daily. “Obesity Linked To Elevated Risk of Ovarian Cancer”
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