To fight cancer, exercise for the long haul

February 1, 2013 | by

The first in a series of articles about how to reduce the risk of cancer ...

If you resolved to exercise more often this year, here's a major reason to keep you committed to working out: Research conducted at City of Hope has shown that not only does exercise help prevent cancer, it also increases survival chances for those diagnosed with cancer.

Even modest amounts of exercise have great benefits, as long as it's a lifelong habit.

Even a modest amount of exercise can have great benefits, as long as it's a lifelong habit.

Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D., professor and director of City of Hope's Division of Cancer Etiology, has been writing the prescription to move for almost 20 years. In 1994, she published her first paper linking physical activity to lower cancer risk, and subsequent studies and research have backed her up – showing that exercise can also reduce the risk of colon cancer and possibly uterine, ovarian, lung and thyroid cancer.

But how often is enough? And how intense should the routine be? Consider these findings and tips:

  • Anything is better than nothing. Research has shown that even an hour of exercise a week, less than 10 minutes a day, can extend your lifespan by almost two years. And if you follow the World Health Organization's guidelines of 2.5 hours a week, that boost goes up to 4.5 years.
  • Check your activity log rather than the scale. According to Bernstein's research, physical activity benefits everyone regardless of weight. Even among the overweight, those who exercised at an intermediate level (with moderate or strenuous activity between 0.5 to three hours a week) saw a 48 percent risk reduction of dying from cancer compared to low-level exercisers. Those who exercised at a high level (more than three hours a week of moderate or strenuous activity) saw an even greater drop of 59 percent.
  • Exercise at a challenging, but do-able, level. "You should be working hard enough to be huffing and puffing and a little out of breath," Bernstein said, adding that the appropriate intensity might be contingent on other factors, such as age. "If you're 20, you may run or jog three to five miles. But if you're 70, you might walk a mile or two at a pace that makes you become out of breath."
  • Make it a lifelong habit. The results of Bernstein's studies are culled from the California Teachers Study, which tracks participants' activity levels over many years. So to truly reap the health benefits of physical activity, one should plan making exercise a permanent commitment. "But it's never too late to start," Bernstein said.
  • Incorporate physical activity into everyday life. Dedicated exercise isn't the only option. The American Cancer Society makes numerous recommendations for how to get more movement into your schedule. You can take a brisk walk during lunchtime, opt for the stairs instead of the elevator and wear a pedometer that counts your daily steps (and motivates you to increase them over time).

Essentially, a few hours a week can add years to your lifespan, Bernstein said, "and that's enough of a reason to get active."