Kyndall Truett, ACSM-CPT/ACSM/ACS-CET
When we discuss the benefits of aerobic exercise, we often talk about how it can help us lose weight, grow stronger, and stay mentally and physically healthy. What if exercise also could reduce the risk of cancer? A 2016 study by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute shows a link between physical activity and cancer rates, with regular exercise lowering the risk of 13 different cancers, including breast and colon cancer.
Of course, no lifestyle choice has the power to prevent cancer entirely. But by making time for several weekly workouts, you’ll not just feel better — there’s also a chance you’ll reduce your risk of a life-altering diagnosis.
How Exercise Affects Overall Health
First, let’s consider the word aerobic. Aerobic exercise refers to physical activity that improves the efficiency of absorbing and transporting oxygen, thus improving our cardiovascular system. When we lace up our sneakers, hop on our bike or jump in the pool and engage in cardiovascular fitness, we decrease our risk of developing heart disease. How? The heart muscle strengthens, which improves blood pressure and cholesterol.
Aerobic activity also helps to control weight, thus decreasing the risk of obesity. And it has amazing psychological benefits too. Exercise helps us develop better sleeping patterns, increases our energy, boosts our endorphins and improves our self-confidence.
How Physical Activity and Cancer Are Linked
Are you wondering exactly how a daily walk or jog could reduce your risk of cancer? Here’s what medical researchers have discovered: Physical activity decreases our risk for chronic diseases, which in turn lowers the amount of inflammation in the body. Exercise also can help improve biological functions, such as balancing hormone levels. If our hormone levels are too high or uncontrolled, our bodies are at risk for developing certain types of cancers.
Regular physical activity also strengthens our immune and lymphatic systems. The immune system can be thought of as our body’s army. It’s what helps us fight cancer cells. And the lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs responsible for flushing out toxins and waste, as well as transporting white blood cells to the areas of the body that need them most.
How Lifestyle Affects Cancer Risk
Being sedentary is strongly associated with an increase in obesity. When we become obese, we have an increase of inflammation in our bodies — an environment in which cancer thrives. Moving more and sitting less decreases our risk of developing certain cancers, as well as other chronic diseases.
The Exercise Needed to See Benefits
The three most important modes of exercise are cardiovascular fitness, strength training and stretching.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing cardiovascular fitness for 20 to 60 minutes, 5-7 times per week. While cardio is often used to burn calories for weight management, aerobic exercise also improves cholesterol, and strengthens bones and muscles. It also improves heart and lung functioning by allowing blood to pump through our system more efficiently. Walking, bicycling and swimming are all great choices for cardiovascular fitness.
The American College of Sports Medicine also recommends doing strength training 2-3 times per week, but with a day of rest in between. Stretching, or resistance training, can incorporate resistance bands, resistance machines and/or free weights. Including resistance training in your workout routine not only tones your muscles, but also strengthens your bone density, improves posture and mobility, and can benefit your heart.
How to Get Moving
New to exercise? No problem! If you’re physically able, walking is one of the best aerobic activities you can do. Whether you’re inside on a treadmill or hitting the trails in your local park, walking has numerous health benefits. For one, it’s low-weight bearing, making it easier on your joints. Of course, it also helps to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, strengthen your heart muscle, improve psychological health, and — last but not least — reduce your risk of developing certain cancers.