The prospect of getting “the big C” is enough to motivate some people to lead a healthy lifestyle. Cancer is the second leading cause of death after heart disease, and it’s the disease that frightens people the most. Eating a healthy diet can reduce the risk of some types of cancer, but what about exercise? Can staying active reduce the cancer risk of getting this frightening disease?
Exercise and Cancer Risk: Is It Protective?
Exercise has benefits when it comes to warding off certain types of cancer. When Finnish researchers followed almost 2,600 middle-aged Finnish men for 17 years, they found men who were the most physically active had an overall lower risk of getting cancer, especially cancers of the gastrointestinal tract and the lung.
The link between exercise and a lower cancer risk is strongest for cancers of the breast and colon in women, but the protective effect is greatest if you also get enough sleep. A 2008 study showed that women who were the most physically active had a lower risk of getting any type of cancer, especially breast cancer as long as they slept at least 7 hours a night.
Not getting enough shut-eye seems to negate some of the benefits of exercise on cancer risk. This isn’t surprising since lack of sleep has been linked with a higher risk of certain diseases including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. Not getting enough sleep alters hormones and the immune system in a way that may boost cancer risk. It also increases the risk of obesity, another risk factor for some types of cancer.
Vigorous Exercise is Better
All forms of exercise reduce the risk of breast and colon cancer to some degree, but more vigorous workouts appear to be most protective. One study showed that women who walked at a brisk pace at least 5 hours a week were less likely to get colon cancer compared to those who walked at a leisurely pace. Vigorous exercise may be particularly effective for keeping breast cancer at bay.
Exercise and Breast Cancer Risk
Breast cancer is a disease that is responsive to high levels of physical activity. Vigorous activity helps to lower estrogen levels, which reduces the risk of some types of breast cancer, especially in women who aren’t obese.
Vigorous activities are activities where you’re breathing so hard that it’s difficult to talk in complete sentences. Running, jogging, skipping rope, and kickboxing all fall into this category. It also includes non-exercise related activities such as vigorously scrubbing the floors, heavy gardening and heavy yard work. Moderate-intensity activity such as brisk walking, slow jogging or swimming laps doesn’t offer the same degree of breast cancer protection that more vigorous exercise does.
How important a factor is physical activity for reducing the risk of breast cancer? According to a German study, lack of exercise accounts for almost 13% of all breast cancer cases. Sounds like a pretty good reason to keep sweating, doesn’t it?
The Bottom Line?
Exercise is one of the few cancer risk factors you can control. Working out vigorously on a regular basis may cut your risk of breast and colon cancer, and possibly other cancers as well. If you have health problems that make it difficult to do high-intensity exercise, take a brisk walk each day, and keep your overall activity level high throughout the day. Combine that with a healthy diet and at least 7 hours of sleep a night and you can put a dent in your cancer risk.
Medical News Today. “Avoidable Breast Cancer Risk Factors Identified”
Science Daily. “Exercise and Rest Reduce Cancer Risk”
New York Times. “Phys Ed: Does Exercise Reduce Your Cancer Risk?”
Web MD. “Vigorous Exercise Cuts Breast Cancer Risk”