Whether you have cancer or not, you may find your motivation to exercise is lacking. Dr Leigh Erin Connealy gives you 10 undeniable reasons your body needs you to get moving
It should come as no surprise that regular physical activity is a crucial part of any health and wellness regimen. Studies upon studies confirm that exercise provides a wide range of benefits, from maintaining optimal weight to building muscle to boosting cardiovascular function and the immune system.
When you have cancer—or any other chronic, long-term illness—the last thing you may be in the mood for is exercise. Whether you are tired, busy or just not feeling well, the motivation to get moving may be lacking. But I’m here to share how physical activity is an integral part of your recovery, as much as any treatment, nutrient or detoxification program.
It’s shocking to me that conventional oncologists don’t typically encourage their patients to engage in regular physical activity. Exercise is literally medicine for your body, and it plays an important role not only in preventing cancer but in fighting it as well. Per the National Cancer Institute, exercise during treatment is safe and beneficial for most people.
Research also shows that people with breast, colorectal, lung, ovarian and prostate cancers who exercise regularly after a cancer diagnosis have longer lifespans and a reduced risk of cancer recurrence.1 If you have breast or colon cancer, listen up! In people with these types of cancers, those who exercise have half the relapse rates of those who don’t. Simply put, if you are in remission, regular physical activity can help keep you there.
When it comes to cancer prevention, exercise has proven to be extremely effective. In one study, compared to sedentary individuals, individuals who boosted the duration, intensity or frequency of their daily exercise routines reduced their chance of developing colon cancer by 30–40 percent!2 Another study confirmed that physically active women have a 20 to 80 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer (depending on several factors) than their sedentary counterparts.3
Even if you can’t get to the gym, get out and walk for 20–30 minutes daily. The takeaway here is that regular physical activity is a must if you want to prevent, treat or stave off cancer recurrences in the future.
Now, on to the top 10 anticancer benefits of regular exercise.
Exercise gives a powerful boost to the immune system. Physical activity improves the circulation of immune cells throughout the body, which allows them to get where they are needed more easily: in this case, to cancer cells. The more efficient this delivery system, the easier it is for immune cells to locate and attack these malignant cells. Furthermore, they can fight off other viruses and bacteria.
Studies show physical activity also increases the activity of cancer-killing cells such as natural killer (NK) cells, monocytes and granulocytes.4 NK cells are one of the body’s premier defenses against cancer, while monocytes and granulocytes also play a key role in cancer-cell destruction. For instance, monocytes can become macrophages—a type of immune cell that can “swallow” cancer cells whole!
The lymphatic system plays a vital role in delivering immune cells and transporting cancer-fighting nutrients into cells while carrying cancer-causing toxins out of them. Some of the best exercises for stimulating the lymphatic system include rebounding, jump-roping or bouncing up and down on a large exercise ball. Most forms of exercise can help increase lymph and blood flow throughout the body.
If you are bedbound or experiencing limited mobility, massage also stimulates the lymphatic system. Another option is a chi machine, an electric device that swishes your ankles from side to side while you lie on the floor, similar to the movements of a fish swimming.
The more oxygenated your body is, the better. Cancer can’t thrive in an oxygen-rich environment, so in theory, exercise—and the boost in oxygen it causes—can be deadly to cancer cells. Exercise also has positive effects on healthy cells, invigorating them and helping them to eliminate their own waste.5 If you can’t afford or don’t have the option of undergoing in-clinic oxygen treatments like hyperbaric oxygen therapy, regular exercise is the next best thing.
Most people know insulin helps regulate blood sugar and dictates how your body uses and stores energy from food. But this hormone is also a growth factor that prompts cancer cells to divide and multiply rapidly. Either way, too much insulin is a bad thing.
Today’s Standard American Diet (SAD), coupled with environmental toxins, stress and lack of physical activity, is leading to more and more health problems, including insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity. Fortunately, insulin resistance can be turned around with diet and exercise.
A landmark study published in the Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry followed a group of obese women for 12 weeks. The women walked for 50–70 minutes three times a week. Post-study, the walkers lost weight in their abdomens and showed improvements in blood glucose numbers. Since excess abdominal fat and high blood sugar are both signs of insulin resistance, this study suggests exercise may well be a powerful tool for lowering insulin levels.6
Exercising or engaging in any strenuous physical activity makes you sweat. This is a good thing since sweating is a powerful natural detoxifying process that helps rid the body of many cancer-linked toxins. Sweating is such an excellent detoxifying therapy that I prescribe regular use of saunas to most of my patients.
A landmark study published in the Archive of Environmental and Contamination Toxicology proved sweating is powerful medicine. In said study, the researchers shared, “Induced sweating appears to be a potential method for elimination of many toxic elements from the human body.”7 Additional research suggests that sweating also helps get rid of two dangerous hormone-disrupting petrochemicals: BPA and phthalates.8 When in doubt, sweat it out!
Hormone imbalances of all types can cause some cancers to grow and potentially increase cancer risk. But we know for certain that excess estrogen is problematic because it can increase the risk of reproductive cancers like ovarian, cervical, breast and prostate.
A groundbreaking study on the relationship between body fat and cancer was performed in 1986 by a former associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health, the late Rose E. Frisch. Frisch and her colleagues surveyed nearly 5,400 women and compared the incidence of cancers in college athletes versus non-athletes.
In the study subjects, aged 18–82 years, across the board, non-athletes had more reproductive cancers than the athlete group. Furthermore, non-athletes had almost twice the risk of developing breast cancer.
Because fat acts like an endocrine-producing organ churning out this hormone and releasing excess estrogen into the body, Dr Frisch hypothesized that the lower percentage of body fat of the athletes reduced their risk and incidence of cancer.9 Reducing fat stores and eliminating one of the leading suppliers of this possibly problematic hormone can help stave off cancer and cancer recurrence as well.
Exercise is also a natural anticoagulant. While blood viscosity may not seem all that important in the fight against cancer, if red blood cells clump together and the blood thickens, all the cancer-killing immune cells, oxygen and nutrients can’t get delivered where they are needed most. A meta-analysis spanning 60 years revealed that exercise actually helped reduce patients’ blood thickness and the clumping of red blood cells.10
Stress reduction is crucial in cancer treatment and prevention, and exercise is one of the best stress relievers readily available to everyone. In addition to increasing levels of mood-enhancing endorphins, physical activity also decreases harmful levels of cortisol.
Living in an elevated state of chronic stress throws your body out of whack and allows the stress hormones released by the adrenal glands to take over. This unbalanced state can lead to several chronic illnesses, including cancer.
Even if you can’t commit physically or mentally to going to the gym several times a week, get outside and walk or jog for 20–30 minutes, climb the stairs a few times, or take an exercise class in person or online. I always tell my patients that for every 30 minutes of exercise they do, they can undo half a day’s worth of built-up stress.
Those mood-boosting endorphins we just discussed are also helpful for relieving anxiety and depression. The feel-good chemicals released after a good exercise session are often referred to as “runner’s high,” and the positive vibe that results can significantly impact your overall well-being.
Other sleep- and mood-enhancing chemicals, such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, are also created when you engage in physical activity. These chemicals, produced in the gut and the brain, play an integral role in sleep, energy and mood. Additionally, better sleep and improved mood bolster the immune system, which also helps when it comes to cancer prevention and treatment.
Exercise gets your body—and your bowels—moving. This process is essential as it helps rid the body of the potentially harmful byproducts of food and metabolic waste. The less time waste sits in the bowels, the better because the accumulation of these byproducts has been linked to colorectal cancer.
Even people who aren’t ready to jump right into regular exercise can get moving by doing what I call “non-exercise activities.” Aim for at least an hour of household tasks daily to get going: washing dishes, folding laundry and cleaning your house.
If you are up for it, try doing 30–60 minutes of any exercise you enjoy several times a week and peppering in less strenuous activities on the days in between. Great options include walking, Qigong, tai chi, resistance training, biking, lifting weights, swimming and yoga.
No matter what, make sure you get up and move around for 30–60 minutes every single day. Start slow and work your way up—some exercise is better than none.
If you do the same thing every day, you’re bound to get bored and much more likely to fall off the exercise wagon. Try changing up your routine by incorporating different types of exercises like walking, yoga, group exercise classes, hikes or sessions on a mini trampoline/rebounder. Find a workout buddy to help keep you accountable and to keep the atmosphere social and fun.
If you are bedridden, use a wheelchair, or have other physical restrictions preventing you from exercising, I have good news. Massage offers some of the same benefits of exercise, such as stimulating lymph and blood flow and increasing the circulation of immune cells.
You can get professional help from a massage therapist in your area or ask a caregiver or loved one to give you a 20-minute daily massage.
If you have limited mobility, there are still plenty of ways to engage in physical activity. You can use your own body weight for resistance or add small hand weights—even water bottles can work—if you’re up for a little extra intensity. Try these five exercises from your chair or wheelchair and practice them daily for best results.
For even more limited mobility exercise options and tips, check online. YouTube is an excellent resource for video tutorials.
Bob, a 63-year-old patient with prostate cancer, shares his story.
“Before seeing Dr Connealy, I went to Pilates three times a week and played golf on the weekends. But when she told me that diet, exercise and my attitude were the most important things I needed to address to be well, I decided to increase my activity level even more.
“I now attend an exercise class five days a week, and wow, what a difference it makes in how I feel! In fact, I’ve never felt better. It helps me stay committed and accountable. Also, classes are a social activity, which makes me happy because I get to be around other people and stay fit simultaneously.
“Exercise is good for my mind, too. Most people in the classes are half my age, but I can keep up with them, and I run circles around the 50- and 60-year-olds.
“If I miss a week of exercise, I always feel a change in my body. I’m not as loose or supple, and things don’t feel quite right. So I’m always glad when I can stay on a regimen because I wake up feeling good.
“Besides exercise, I meditate daily, which helps keep me grounded. Cancer changed my attitude about life. Before cancer, I thought nothing would ever change and there was no urgency to do anything. But I now wake up and appreciate and enjoy every single day because we never know how long we have on this earth.”
Our bodies weren’t designed to sit around all day, so I implore you to get in the habit of exercising regularly—in whatever capacity you can. I firmly believe exercise is as essential to any anticancer regimen as chemotherapeutic agents, diet and supplements. At the bare minimum, you’ll feel better, get stronger, boost your immune system and protect all aspects of your health.
Our regular columnist Dr Leigh Erin Connealy joins us for a discussion about cancer—its origins, the best anti-cancer diet, other ways to prevent it, and strategies to support any treatment you’re having.
Since Erin joined the WDDTY team, we’ve been constantly amazed at her breadth of knowledge about the disease that afflicts so many of us.
Not surprisingly, she is one of the most sought-after cancer specialists in the US, and so we are especially privileged that she is finding time in her busy schedule to spend time with us and answer your questions.