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Largest Study to Date Shows Promising Benefits of Exercise to Prevent Tumors

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

benefits of exercise to prevent tumors

Story at-a-glance -

  • Recent research shows people with the best cardiorespiratory fitness had a 77% reduced risk of lung cancer and a 61% decreased risk of colorectal cancer; they also had a reduced risk of death if they were diagnosed with lung or colorectal cancer
  • Further in vitro research found high intensity interval training may help reduce the number of colon cancer cells and is a strong predictor of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease
  • Factors that may influence colorectal health include frequent use of antibiotics, which increases the inflammatory response and the risk of cancer, and protecting the health of beneficial bacteria in your gut microbiome that produce propionic acid, which protect the epithelial cells of the gastrointestinal tract
  • Other benefits of exercise include improved mood and mental health, improved cognitive function, slowed aging and reduced risk of chronic illnesses

Cancer is at epidemic proportions around the world. According to the American Cancer Society,1 more than 1.7 million new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed and 606,880 Americans are expected to die in 2019. This means 1,662 people will die every day. This number of deaths is exceeded only by heart disease.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2019 lung cancer and colorectal cancer will be in the top three leading causes of death from cancer and be leading sites of new cancers in men and women.2 Although you sometimes hear the terms colon cancer and colorectal cancer used interchangeably, they are different.

Colorectal cancers include those occurring in the colon and rectum, while colon cancers occur only in the large intestine. Cancers in the anus are classified separately as they arise from different cell types and have different characteristics.3

The American Cancer Society4 finds the rates of lung cancer will vary by state, reflecting differences in smoking prevalence. Men and women who smoke are 25 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers. An estimated 228,150 new cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed in 2019.

Although the rate of death has declined, 81% of lung cancer deaths are still caused by smoking in the U.S. Lifestyle factors and environmental toxins are a large percentage of the reason cancer develops. According to researchers, 90% to 95% of all cancers have their roots in environment and lifestyle, including smoking, diet, alcohol, environmental pollutants and physical inactivity.5

A recent study from the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan, and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found the fittest adults have the lowest risk of lung and colorectal cancers.6

Exercise Reduces Risk of Lung and Colorectal Cancer

According to the researchers, the relationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and colorectal and lung cancer outcomes had not been well-established. They performed a study7 on 49,143 individuals who had been referred for an exercise stress test between 1991 and 2009. At the time of the stress test, the individuals did not have cancer and were between 40 and 70 years old.

The participants had their cardiorespiratory fitness measured in metabolic equivalents of task (METs). The results were then categorized into four levels, METs less than 6, 6 to 9, 10 to 11 and greater than 12. The researchers gained information about cancer diagnoses through the cancer registry and information about all-cause mortality from the National Death index.8

The researchers followed up with the participants and adjusted the data for age, race, sex, body mass index and diabetes. At a median follow-up of 7.7 years, the highest fitness category, those with a METs measurement greater than 12, had a 77% reduced risk of lung cancer and a 61% decrease risk of colorectal cancer.

Additionally, when an individual was diagnosed with either cancer, those in the highest fitness range had a 44% reduced risk of death when diagnosed with lung cancer and an 89% reduced risk of death when diagnosed with colorectal cancer.9

The researchers believe no other study of this type had included women or covered such a large group who were not white.10 The participants were 46% female, 64% white, 29% black and 1% Hispanic.

Dr. Catherine Handy Marshall, assistant professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and lead author commented,11 "Our findings are one of the first, largest and most diverse cohorts to look at the impact of fitness on cancer outcomes." The researchers concluded in what they believe is the:12

" … largest study performed to date, higher CRF (cardiorespiratory function) was associated with a lower risk of incident lung and colorectal cancer in men and women and a lower risk of all-cause mortality among those diagnosed with lung or colorectal cancer.”

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High Intensity Exercise May Also Kill Colorectal Cancer Cells

Exercise is a key foundation to optimal health. I'm a supporter of high intensity interval training (HIIT) for a number of reasons. Recent research published in the Journal of Physiology found HIIT was associated with a reduction in mortality in those who had survived colorectal cancer.13

Although past studies had found exercise over a long period of time may help prevent cancer, this study suggested even short bursts of exercise may have a positive effect. The team assembled individuals with colorectal cancer and asked them to complete one session of HIIT or 12 sessions of HIIT over a four-week period.

The researchers found the blood sample drawn immediately following exercise reduced the number of colon cancer cells in a petri dish. A significant increase in cytokines signaling proteins responsible for modulating the immune and inflammatory response was also observed.14

Cardiorespiratory Fitness Reduces All-Cause Mortality

Cardiorespiratory fitness is an objective measure of habitual physical activity. There is compelling scientific evidence it is also a strong predictor of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease. In one study,15 men experiencing mental and emotional disorders had a lower risk of dying when they had higher cardiorespiratory fitness.

Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association16 found cardiorespiratory fitness was a modifiable indicator of long-term mortality with no observed upper limit of benefit. High aerobic fitness was associated with the greatest survival rates and had benefits for elderly patients and those with high blood pressure.

The number of scientific studies continuing to support evidence cardiorespiratory fitness helps reduce all-cause mortality is growing. The association appears in healthy individuals, those with high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.17

While independent factors of types of exercise, intensity, duration and frequency are not clearly associated with a reduction in mortality, many believe there is a caloric expenditure threshold of 1,000 calories per week at which a reduction in all-cause mortality risk begins.18

Several studies have suggested cardiorespiratory fitness is as important as traditional risk factors and may be more strongly associated with mortality. Past studies have also reported greater cardiorespiratory fitness may reduce the risk of death associated with obesity.19

Biological mechanisms associated with cardiovascular respiratory fitness that may reduce mortality risk include improved insulin sensitivity, blood lipid profile, reduced inflammatory response and maintaining normal blood pressure.20

Factors Influencing Colorectal Health

In addition to a lack of exercise, other factors also influence tumor growth. Antibiotics not only fundamentally alter your gut microbiome but they may also increase inflammation. A study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences21 found the frequent use of antibiotics was associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

The health of your gut microbiome also plays an important role in treatment and prevention of colorectal cancer.22 Researchers have found Lactobacillus reuteri23 has the potential to reduce colon cancer tumors.

Studies have found several factors increase the incidence of colorectal cancer, including a diagnosis with inflammatory bowel disease.24 In other words, your gut microbiome is a large player in your overall health in general and in the development of colorectal cancer in particular.

Researchers25 have found evidence highlighting the key role played by intestinal microbiota in malignant gastrointestinal diseases. In another,26 data showed microbiota may promote homeostasis and antitumor responses in the intestines. In a third review,27 scientists examined current research and focused on bacterial pathogenesis, proposing evidence of an association with colorectal cancer.

Short chain fatty acids, such as butyrate and propionate,28 have demonstrated a protective effect on epithelial cells.29 The addition of bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids has an effect on nutrition and host metabolism, and helps protect your gastrointestinal tract. A diet high in carbohydrates and sugar feed harmful bacteria, while foods high in fiber feed primarily beneficial bacteria.

Lung Health Is Influenced by More Than Smoking

Smoking is a primary factor influencing the development of lung cancer. While you may not be a smoker, exposure to secondhand smoke is also dangerous. Indoor air pollutants also damage your lung tissue. The World Health Organization states more than 90% live in areas where pollution levels are higher than they deem safe.30

The estimated number who are dying an early death from pollution exposure has nearly doubled the previous estimate.31 The new data show air pollution caused 8.8 million premature deaths in 2015. By comparison, WHO estimates the global number of premature deaths from smoking is 7 million per year, less than the number killed by air pollution.32

Indoor pollutants may come from building materials, carpeting, furniture, clothing or cleaning supplies. The American Lung Association33 recommends you also avoid exposure to outdoor air pollution. Take care to know the air pollution rating for the day and do not exercise outdoors on days when pollutants are high.

Not all deaths from air pollution are triggered by lung cancer. Air pollution also contributes to cardiovascular diseases.34 Although the condition of poor air quality is ubiquitous, you'll find strategies to help mitigate pollution risk in my previous article, “Air Pollution Is Worse Than Smoking.”

Exercise Benefits More Than Cancer Prevention

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,35 76.5% of Americans do not meet the physical activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity. While the featured study demonstrated HIIT offers some protection against colorectal and lung cancers, exercise has other benefits as well.

Exercise helps improve mood and mental health. As you exercise, your body releases neurotransmitters that affect your mood and make you feel more relaxed. In one study,36 researchers found exercise offered positive outcomes for those diagnosed with schizophrenia.

A study37 of adults found those who were more physically active had better brain activity and patterns associated with improved cognitive function. Exercise also helps slow the aging process and makes you feel and look younger. It induces changes in mitochondrial enzyme content and booster cellular energy production.38

It increases circulation and blood flow to your skin and it only takes a short time to experience the benefits.39 In the past, it was suggested those who were ill or suffered from chronic diseases should not exercise. However, the opposite is often true. Those who suffer from osteoarthritis40 or cancer41 find an exercise program may be crucial to their treatment program.

Start an Exercise Program at Home

Research shows while many people started an exercise program to lose weight and improve their appearance, they continued to exercise when they experienced benefits to their well-being.42

Once people recognized the connection between exercise and their emotional health, they continued to work out since it made them feel good mentally immediately after, or during, exercise. As you continue, you'll reap increasing rewards that will permeate virtually every aspect of your health.

So get moving and keep moving for the best results. To get the most out of your workouts, I recommend a comprehensive program including HIIT exercise, strength training, stretching and core work and walking 10,000 steps a day.

Consider incorporating the Nitric Oxide Dump, which may be done virtually anywhere, and is appropriate for all fitness levels. The exercise is a form of HIIT, which research has shown to offer greater fitness and health gains in a fraction of the time compared to typical moderate or low-intensity gym workouts. For a demonstration, see the video below. To learn more about it, see my previous article, “Incorporate the Nitric Oxide Dump.”

+ Sources and References