Can Exercise Lower Your Cancer Risk?

Protecting you from cancer may be another good reason to move your body regularly.

Here’s some good news for active people. That daily walk, jog, fitness class or bike ride might be doing more good for your body than you realize, especially when it comes to cancer risk.

A strong link has been shown between higher daily levels of physical activity and a lower risk for developing several types of cancer, including breast, colon, esophageal, bladder, kidney, stomach and endometrial, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). A review of research by the American College of Sports Medicine found that regular exercise may reduce the risk of certain cancers by as much as 69%. Additionally, researchers correlated physical activity with improved treatment outcomes and prolonged life in those who already have cancer.

Although the exact link between physical activity and cancer risk or outcomes isn’t fully understood, one recent study suggests it may have something to do with how physical activity affects immune cells. The study, done on mice, showed that exercise may enhance the immune system’s ability to target and eradicate cancer cells.

More research needs to be done to better understand the exercise-cancer connection. But there’s no doubt that being more physically active is good for your health in numerous ways. So there’s no reason to wait for more scientific findings before deciding that moving more is just plain good for you.

Ready to increase your activity levels? These tips can help:

  1. Take it one step at a time. You don’t have to be a marathon runner to reap the benefits associated with being active. Experts agree that taking small steps is the best way to build sustainable habits that achieve positive results. If you can’t exercise 30 minutes at a time, take three 10-minute walks. If that’s too much, start with just one 10-minute walk, then work up to more walks or more time per walk when you’re ready.
  2. Choose joyful movement. If you engage in activities that bring you pleasure, you’ll be more likely to stick with them. There’s no need to go for a run, head to the gym or follow a structured exercise class if that isn’t something you like doing. Find ways to move that make you happy and it won’t seem like work to meet your activity goals – dance, go skating, do yoga at the beach or run around the yard with your kids. 
  3. Buddy up. Having an accountability partner helps you stay committed and motivated. Working out with a friend or family member keeps you on track, provides support when you need it and makes the time you spend exercising more fun. Whether you get together in person or simply challenge each other on your fitness tracker, having a fitness buddy benefits you both.
  4. Focus on progress, not perfection. You set yourself up to fail if you think you’re only successful once you reach a specific goal. Give yourself credit for each step you take towards your goal, focusing on what you do, rather than what you don’t. If you miss a day, or a week, cut yourself some slack and move forward when you’re ready rather than giving up because you already “blew it.”

Lowering your risk of cancer or improving treatment outcomes if you already have a cancer diagnosis is one good reason to stay physically active. But it’s certainly not the only one. Regular physical activity will not only help keep your body healthier, but it may also help improve your mood, manage stress and give you more energy.


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Date Last Reviewed: April 14, 2021

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Andrew P. Overman, DPT, MS, COMT, CSCS

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