Which cancers are linked to physical activity?
Being physically active is a powerful way to reduce your risk of cancer. This proof is especially true for some of the most common cancers in Alberta. Experts here recently looked at how much cancer could be prevented through physical activity1. Here’s what they found:
- Colorectal Cancer:
- About 16% of colorectal cancer in Alberta is linked to not getting enough physical activity. Colorectal cancer includes cancer of the colon and cancer of the rectum. Physical activity is more important for protecting against cancer of the colon than cancer of the rectum.
- Breast Cancer:
- Physical activity reduces women’s chances of getting breast cancer. This is especially true for women who have been through menopause. About 17% of breast cancer in women aged 55 and older in Alberta is linked to not getting enough physical activity.
- Lung Cancer:
- About 21% of lung cancer in Alberta could be prevented through physical activity.
- Endometrial Cancer:
- About 1 in 5 cases of endometrial cancer in Alberta is linked to not getting enough physical activity.
- Ovarian Cancer:
- About 12% of ovarian cancer cases in Alberta are linked to not getting enough physical activity.
- Prostate Cancer:
- Physical activity is one of the few proven strategies for reducing the risk of prostate cancer. It could prevent about 3% of prostate cancer cases in Alberta.
Overall, not getting enough physical activity is linked to about 8% of new cancer cases in Alberta.
How does being active help reduce my risk of cancer?
Being active helps reduce cancer risk several ways:
- Some hormones in our blood help cancer cells grow. For example, estrogen can promote breast cancer and endometrial cancer. Insulin can make cells in other parts of the body grow out of control. Being active can help lower hormones like estrogen and insulin and reduce the risk of cancer.
- Physical activity helps strengthen our bodies’ immune system and reduce inflammation. These can help reduce cancer risk too.
- By helping to speed up the digestive process, regular physical activity also protects against colon cancer by reducing the time that cancer-causing agents in the stool stay in contact with the colon.
- Another way physical activity reduces cancer risk is by helping with weight control. Keeping a healthy weight can help prevent many cancers.
How active should I be?
The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend the following for adults2:
- Accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.
- Add muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activities
- Using major muscle groups at least two days per week.
- Older adults with poor mobility should perform physical activities to enhance balance and prevent falls.
These guidelines also point out that more daily activity provides greater health benefits.
Limiting sedentary behaviour is also important for reducing cancer risk3. Sitting or lying down for long periods could increase your risk of getting cancer.
The exact amount of physical activity needed to reduce cancer risk is being studied around the world and right here in Alberta. For example, a recent study summarizing all published evidence for breast cancer estimated that for every 2 hour per week increase in moderate and vigorous physical activity, the risk of breast cancer decreases by 5%4. Recent findings from Alberta have also shown that post-menopausal women who participated in a trial where they performed 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week for 12 months lost more body fat than women who did 150 minutes of exercise per week5. This is important because the loss of body fat is thought to lower the risk of breast cancer.
Most studies looking at physical activity intensity and cancer risk have found that the more intense and consistent the activity, the lower your cancer risk is likely to be.
What else can physical activity help with?
The benefits of an active lifestyle build over your lifetime, but physical activity at any age can greatly improve health and reduce your risk of cancer. Being physically active also lowers your risk of many other health conditions that are important to Albertans, like:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
Research shows that physical activity can also boost:
- Sleep quality
Tips for getting more active
In 2015, the Alberta Centre for Active Living found that only 60% of adults were physically active enough to gain health benefits6. Alberta Health7 recommends the following 10 tips for making physical activity a regular habit in your life:
- Get started with some gentle stretching.
- Explore what types of community activities are available.
- Rely on the support of others – ask a friend to participate with you so you can encourage each other.
- Don't be overly ambitious; set realistic goals.
- Each day, pick a time that's convenient for you and commit to participating in some type of physical activity.
- Mark your activity times on a calendar.
- Try shorter, more frequent sessions rather than the occasional prolonged session.
- Make use of everyday movement opportunities such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Prepare yourself for a few lapses but don't give up.
- You cannot just eat your way to good health – exercise must go hand-in-hand with good nutrition.
MyHealth Alberta has the following resources to help make physical activity a regular habit for you: