There was a time when the advised recovery for patients with cancer focused heavily on bed rest.

Exercise and Cancer: What’s The Connection?

There was a time when the advised recovery for patients with cancer focused heavily on bed rest. Today, that theory has nearly gone out the window and most patients are encouraged to participate in leisure to moderate physically activity.

Cancer Recovery and Exercise
Ann Malkmus delves into this transition from promoting inactive recovery to fostering movement and exercise during the remission process in "Unravel the Mystery." She opens the chapter with a quote from Benny Bellamacina that speaks volumes:

"Sometimes the walk to the doctors is a better cure than the medicine you receive."

Doctors are no longer just prescribing bed rest for recovering cancer patients.Doctors are no longer just prescribing bed rest for recovering cancer patients.

Many doctors today see physical activity as an integral part of the restorative phase following cancer treatment, including Dr. Thierry Bouillet, Medical Director of the Institute of Radiotherapy at the Avicenne Medical Center of the University of Paris, wrote Malkmus. According to Bouillet, exercise can help benefit the body in a number of ways. It can modify and reduce excess hormones that have the potential of encouraging cancer growth, it reduces the secretion of insulin and insulin-like growth factor – through reducing blood sugar levels – that could inflame tissues and spur tumor growth and metastasis and it can reduce fat storage areas which in turn lowers the number of areas where toxins are stored.

Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment
Bouillet also noted that exercise can help to improve health through its immune system protection against stress from bad news as well as its ability to lower inflammation in the blood stream, according to "Unravel the Mystery." Studies have even shown that patients who already avidly engage in activity won't lose as many natural killer cells upon receiving news of a cancer diagnosis when compared to those who have been more sedentary. 

"Regular activity before starting cancer treatment can help improve outcomes."

And though the ability to exercise prior to beginning cancer treatment is highly dependent on individual circumstances, doing so can help to greatly improve outcomes.

"If you have cancer, you'll have a more successful fight against it and a better recovery afterward if you introduce light exercise," wrote Malkmus. "And, to avoid relapse, the combination of exercise and diet are likely to bring great results over time."

Further Findings
For years, research studies have pointed to the notion that a lowered risk of cancers including colon, breast and endometrial cancers was associated with leisure-time physical activity, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Confirming that relationship between the two, a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that the risk for 10 additional cancers is also lowered by exercise, including myeloid leukemia, esophageal adenocarcinoma, liver cancer, kidney cancer and cancer of the gastric cardia, all of which showed the greatest risk reductions during the study. Significant, though not as strong, reduced risks were found for myeloma and cancers of the rectum, bladder, head and neck. An association between exercise and lung cancer was also found, though it was conditional: The risk was only reduced for former and current smokers.

Confirming That Exercise Benefits Lowered Cancer Risks
The study included 1.44 million people from the U.S. and Europe between the ages of 19 and 98. For an average of 11 years, participants self-reported their exercise – leisure-time physical activity of a moderate to vigorous intensity. This averaged about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per person each week. 

The study, conducted by Steven Moore, Ph.D, the NCI and colleagues, was able to not only analyze a number of different cancers, but rare malignancies as well. During the course of the research, there were 187,000 new cancer diagnoses. Study authors concluded that physical activity could impact cancer in several ways. There are three metabolic pathways also influenced by exercise and it was hypothesized that these pathways could also act as the catalyst for tumor growth and spread. In line with Bouillet's theories above, these pathways are: Insulin and insulin-like growth factors; sex steroids (estrogens and androgens) and proteins involved with both insulin metabolism and inflammation. Oxidative stress, immune function and inflammation have also been thought to be a link between exercise and cancer. 

"Leisure-time physical activity is known to reduce risks of heart disease and risk of death from all causes, and our study demonstrates that it is also associated with lower risks of many types of cancer," said lead study author Moore. "Furthermore, our results support that these associations are broadly generalizable to different populations, including people who are overweight or obese, or those with a history of smoking. Health care professionals counseling inactive adults should promote physical activity as a component of a healthy lifestyle and cancer prevention." 

Confirming existing research, a study has found a connection between reduced risk for 13 different cancers and leisure-time physical activity.Confirming existing research, a study has found a connection between reduced risk for 13 different cancers and leisure-time physical activity.

Interval Training
For those who are already in good shape, looking to take preventative measures against cancer, there's an easy way to get the most of your exercise for the least amount of time. Hallelujah Acres reported on data from Canadian McMaster University's research team that found just 10 minutes of high intensity, sprint interval training had the same impact on health as 45 minutes of moderate-intensity continuous training. After 12 weeks, comparing a group of men partaking in three days each week of sprint interval training and a group of men completing three days each week of moderate-intensity continuous training, there was no difference found in insulin sensitivity, skeletal muscle mitochondrial content or peak oxygen uptake.

All told, if you're looking to stay active to reduce your risk of cancer, it doesn't have to take up much of your time at all! 

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