Move More and Sit Less for Cancer Prevention and Survival, say New HHS Guidelines

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On November 12, 2018, the U.S. government did something good for our health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave us clear guidelines for the amount and types of physical activity to reduce the risk for common diseases, and to improve health for people with chronic diseases.

The guidelines state that being physically active is one of the most important things that people can do to improve their health. Health benefits start immediately after exercising, and even short periods of physical activity are beneficial. The government goes on to state that almost everyone can benefit from physical activity: women and men of all races and ethnicities, people of all ages, pregnant and postpartum women, and individuals with disabilities or chronic diseases.

Guidelines calling to move more:

    • Move more and sit less throughout the day.
    • Do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic, per week.
    • Doing more than 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week provides even greater health benefits.
    • Do muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week for additional health benefits.

Relevance to cancer:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services led the effort to develop these guidelines, which apply to all Americans. The government first convened a group of experts in physical activity and health—the Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. I was honored to serve on that committee. One of the jobs of the committee was to review the science on the role that physical activity might have in reducing the risk for various cancers and in improving survival in individuals who have cancer. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services used the Committee’s findings to develop these new guidelines.

The guidelines state that individuals who engage in regular physical activity have a lower risk of cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung, and stomach. Any amount of activity is beneficial in reducing risk, but the protection is greater with more time spent in physical activity on a regular basis.

The guidelines recommend that cancer survivors engage in regular physical activity for its many health benefits. For adults with breast, colorectal, or prostate cancer, greater amounts of physical activity were associated with lower risk of dying from their cancer. For some cancer survivors, regular physical activity may reduce the risk of dying from any cause. Since physical activity can also improve quality of life, fitness, and physical function in cancer survivors, as well as reduce fatigue and some adverse effects of cancer treatment, all cancer survivors should be as active as they are able. The government recommends that individuals with cancer consult with their doctor or an exercise professional to determine what is the best type and level of physical activity for them.

The Key Guidelines for adults are:

  • Adults should move more and sit less throughout the day. Some physical activity is better than none. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.
  • For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.
  • Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
  • Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity and that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.

Guidelines for children, teenagers, older adults, pregnant and postpartum women, adults with chronic health conditions, and adults with disabilities are also provided.

How to incorporate the guidelines into your life:

The guidelines provide recommendations on how to incorporate physical activity into your lifestyle. For some people, getting help from others can help—friends, family, or exercise professionals. For others, technology might be key, such as step counters or exercise monitors, or text messages from professionals to help with behavior change. For cancer survivors, resources may be available through your hospital, medical center, or community for special exercise opportunities. Guidance for communities and institutions is also provided in the guidelines because improving access to physical activity opportunities can help everyone.

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    Author: Anne McTiernan

    Dr. Anne McTiernan, is a Research Professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and author of a highly acclaimed memoir, Starved: A Nutrition Doctor’s Journey from Empty to Full.

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