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From OncoLog, July 2012, Vol. 57, No. 7

Exercise and Cancer Prevention
Benefits of exercise apply to a variety of cancers

Graphic: House CallPeople who engage in regular, moderate exercise are less likely to develop some forms of cancer than are people who do not exercise regularly, according to recent studies. The evidence is strongest for colon, endometrial, and postmenopausal breast cancers.

Connecting the dots

“Although the connections between exercise and cancer prevention are not entirely clear yet, there are some probable explanations,” said Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. One explanation relates to weight control. Regular exercise can prevent obesity, which is associated with many types of cancer. Obesity can cause the body to produce too much estrogen, which is a factor in some cancers, such as breast cancer. Obesity can also cause the body to produce too much insulin. Excess insulin can lead to the overproduction of cells, which, in turn, can lead to cancer.

Photo: Woman walking

Physical activity may also prevent cancer in other ways. It can boost the immune system and reduce inflammation; these help the body fight cancer development. Exercise also speeds the passage of food through the digestive system, possibly reducing how long cancer-causing substances spend in the colon. Finally, exercise can help regulate cell death (a normal process), preventing the uncontrolled growth associated with cancer.

Getting enough exercise

The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends that people get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day; 60 minutes of daily activity is even more beneficial. Anything that gets your heart beating more quickly and makes you breathe more deeply can count as moderate exercise. Participating in a mix of strength training and cardiovascular activities, such as jogging or brisk walking, will help you get the most out of exercise. Although studies have suggested that incidental or occupational activities such as taking the stairs may have some benefits, the cancer prevention benefits of deliberate exercise are much clearer.

If you find the prospect of 30 minutes of sustained exercise daunting, take heart: researchers have found that breaking those 30 minutes into smaller blocks of time can be just as beneficial.

Starting out

Dr. Basen-Engquist suggested several ways to ease the transition into regular exercise. Before starting out, think about the kinds of activities you enjoy. These might be things you don’t traditionally think of as exercise—dancing or walking the dog. If you start with something you enjoy, your exercise program is more likely to last.

Start slowly and work your way up. Don’t be disappointed if you’re not exercising 30 minutes every day from the outset. And for support, look to friends or other groups who also participate in the physical activities you enjoy.

Keeping motivated

Dr. Basen-Engquist offered three principles for maintaining the motivation to exercise: setting goals, monitoring progress, and rewarding yourself. Your goal might be to increase the distance you cover, the time you spend exercising, or your repetitions of an activity (such as laps of the pool).

A range of devices allow you to monitor your progress. Wearing a pedometer will allow you to count your steps both during exercise and throughout the day. You might also time your exercise sessions, adding them up at the end of the month and aiming for longer sessions in the next month. New applications for smart phones and Web sites such as can help measure distances and speed. If you would rather keep things simple, you might chart your progress on a calendar, where you can also set new targets for speed, distance, calories burned, or other measures.

For rewards, you might try fruits such as berries. Dr. Basen-Engquist suggested allowing yourself to download a new song or buy some new reading materials if you meet your goals. And by only allowing yourself to engage in a certain fun activity (perhaps reading a favorite magazine) while exercising, you’ll come to associate exercise with enjoyment instead of self-denial.

Vacations, bad weather, and other disruptions to your routine can derail your exercise plans. So, if your exercise program is going well but you see a high-risk situation ahead, take preventive action: pack your exercise clothes for a vacation, or have an indoor activity in mind for days when the outdoors look unappealing.

Even though the mechanisms that connect exercise with cancer prevention are not well understood, Dr. Basen-Engquist said, “You can confidently say that being active will benefit your health more than being sedentary.”

– A. Scholtz

For more information, talk to your physician, visit, or call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789.

Other articles in OncoLog, July 2012 issue:


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