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Exercise: A Powerful Aid Against Cancer

By Jenni Hart

Those of us who can’t dream of living without exercise have always instinctively known what scientist is just beginning to prove: having a ripped, lean, toned body not only helps us feel more confident; it reduces the risks of a host of diseases (including heart disease, osteoporosis and Type II diabetes), promotes mental health and helps us feel vital and youthful. Recent studies have shown that exercise also has positive benefits for the prevention and treatment of cancer. These are some of the most exciting findings, as compiled by the National Cancer Institute

  • Exercise ameliorates the side-effects of radiotherapy treatment for cancer: One of the most fascinating studies of late showed that a group of women receiving radiotherapy for breast cancer who partook in regular yoga classes reported lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels and less fatigue. Cancer patients often receive harsh treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy, which wrest from vitality and can be highly stressful. Complementary therapies like yoga work well to counter their harsh side-effects. A number of studies also show that women who are physically active have a lower risk of developing breast cancer than those who are inactive. This is true for both pre- and post-menopausal women, though evidence also suggests that those who engage in moderate to intense levels of exercise in their teens can reap the greatest benefits in terms of cancer prevention. Findings have led doctors to recommend 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day.
  • Exercise and Lung Cancer: Thus far, few studies have analysed the impact of exercise on lung cancer. Overall findings indicate a link between physical activity and a lower risk of lung cancer.
  • Endometrial Cancer: Studies show that women who are physically active have between a 20% and 40% less risk of contracting endometrial cancer. Those who are the most active have the lowest risk of this cancer, which is the most common cancer of the female reproductive system. Treatment usually includes radiation therapy, hormone therapy and/or chemotherapy, which can also produce considerable fatigue and stress.
  • Physical activity vs colorectal cancer: The National Cancer Institute of Canada (NCIC) notes that colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most common cancer and the second most common cause of death for Canadian men and women. Some 423 Canadians are diagnosed with CRC every week, and the disease takes around 175 lives in the same time period. Colon Cancer Canada recommends that all those aged 50 and above should be screened for CRC, even if they do not have a family history of the disease. Studies also show that an active lifestyle can be an important part of keeping CRC at bay. Over 50 studies have been carried out on the relationship between exercise and CRC, with results showing that physically active adults can reduce their risk of developing the disease by up to 40 per cent when compared to their sedentary peers. Once again, between 30 and 60 minutes of exercise daily are recommended. The reasons that exercise can keep cancer at bay in this sense are thought to by multiple – i.e. exercise can help balance energy levels and insulin regulation and can also decrease the time the colon is exposed to possible carcinogens. Exercise also helps with hormone metabolism, which can play an important role in decreasing cancer risks. A recent, groundbreaking study has shown that women who exercise moderately to vigorously for approximately 30 minutes a day helps break down oestrogen. During this process, a vital metabolite that decreases the risk of breast cancer is produced, since oestrogen is thought to stimulate the development of various breast and womb cancers.
  • Exercise and survival rates: We know that exercise can improve energy levels and quality of life, but it can result in a greater survival rate? One study showed that women who exercised moderately after being diagnosed with breast cancer had a better survival rate than sedentary women. Another study showed that exercise had a positive effect on the psychological wellbeing of women who had recently received treatment for breast cancer and who had led sedentary lives previously. Further studies need to be carried out on the link between exercise and survival from cancer, though one important point to note is that women being treated for cancer often suffer from weight gain owing to decreased activity. Exercise, as one of the most proven ways to battle obesity, is therefore a powerful preventive activity, since obesity increase the risk of various types of cancer, including colon, breast, kidney and oesophagus cancer.
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