Reduce Cancer Risk by Being Physically Active, Say Experts

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The recently released Third Expert Report – Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective, concludes that daily physical activity provides a powerful protection against cancer. The report recommends individuals to achieve at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic physical activity per week and for more protection to aim for 45 to 60 minutes per day. Another important part of the recommendation is “walk more and sit less.”

Getting regular physical activity is one of the ten recommendations in the report that altogether work as a lifestyle package for cancer prevention. Over the next several weeks we will break down the physical activity guidelines in the report to help you better understand what they mean for you and how you can apply them to your lifestyle and personal circumstances.

What were the findings?

After a systematic literature review and meta-analysis, the Expert Panel found strong evidence that being physically active directly reduces your risk of three cancers.
Breast  post-menopausal; vigorous activity for pre-menopausal)

In addition, being active can help you maintain a healthy weight, indirectly reducing your risk for many other types of cancer.

Does being sedentary, like watching TV and sitting a lot, increase risk for certain cancers?

The short answer is: we are not sure. There is not yet enough evidence on links between sedentary behavior and specific cancers. Evidence is limited, but suggests that being sedentary increases risk for endometrial cancer. And emerging evidence does suggest that being sedentary increases markers in the body linked to cancer risk. More research is needed in this area.

It is important to note that while the expert report does not propose a specific physical activity recommendation for every type of cancer, it notes that being physically active is an important part of cancer prevention package in general and is also good for maintaining overall health.
The more active you are, the greater the benefit.

What counts as physical activity?

Any movements you do throughout the day counts as physical activity. The report classified activity into three types:

Occupational: This refers to physical activity that occurs as part of daily responsibilities of a job. Those engaging in desk jobs participate in minimal amounts of occupational physical activity, whereas others may engage in a large amount of occupational physical activity.

Recreational: This refers to exercise, sports, and other forms of more formal training. Aerobic activities (e.g., walking, cycling, and swimming) and muscle strengthening activities (e.g., weight lifting) are also included in this category.

Total Physical Activity: This includes all movements that occur throughout a person’s day. In addition to occupational and recreational activities, total physical activity also includes transport (e.g., walking or cycling to work) and household chores (e.g., gardening, cleaning).

The report also discusses the intensity level of activity, i.e., how hard it is to perform the physical activity, with harder ones bringing more benefits. In some cases, the report specifies a level of intensity that must be achieved to reap the protective benefit.

If I have already been diagnosed with cancer and finished treatment, how do these guidelines apply to me?

Although there is not enough evidence at this time to make specific recommendations on physical activity and survivorship, survivors are encouraged to follow the prevention recommendations as they are able. This aligns with the American College of Sports Medicine Guidelines for Cancer Patients and Survivors, which include avoiding inactivity and being as physically active as possible both during and after treatment.

Ready to get started? Next post we will talk more about how to create realistic goals to help you meet these physical activity recommendations.


Author: Mary Kennedy

Mary Kennedy, MS, is an exercise physiologist certified by the American College of Sports Medicine.

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