The Role of Physical Activity in Cancer Prevention and Rehab

Over the weekend I watched a powerful documentary on Netflix called “The C Word.” The documentary explores the role that lifestyle (i.e. diet, exercise, stress management, etc.) plays in the prevention, development, and recovery of cancer. Exercise is a crucial part in maintaining a healthy lifestyle but can it really mean life or death? The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute seem to think so. Listed below are key points I gained from watching the documentary and then verified with research from the two above-mentioned institutions.

Why might physical activity be linked to reduced rates of cancer

Exercise (or lack of) has various effects on the body, which can explain the association with certain cancers. Listed below is what exercise can do for your body.

  • Reduce inflammation
  • Improve immune system
  • Alter metabolism/increase digestive system
  • Lower hormone levels (insulin, estrogen, other growth factors associated with cancer)
  • Helps prevent obesity and consequently decreases cancers associated with obesity

What is the recommended amount of exercise for adults/teens by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute?

  • Adults should have either 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity and 150 minutes or moderate physical activity weekly.
  • Due to high rates of obesity and the link of obesity in cancer it is recommended that teens have an hour of moderate physical activity daily and vigorous physical activity three times a week.

What is the connection between obesity and cancer?

Exercise helps maintain a healthy body weight and helps to prevent obesity. “Being active is thought to reduce cancer risk largely by improving energy metabolism and reducing circulating concentrations of estrogen, insulin, and insulin-like growth factors.” By being over weight you increase the risk of stimulating cancer causing agents. Listed below are the cancers that studies have found to be correlated with obesity.

  • Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus
  • Colon and Rectum
  • Breast (in post menopausal women)
  • Kidney
  • Liver
  • Pancreas
  • Colorectal *Associated with abdominal fatness
  • Endometrial *Associated with abdominal fatness

There is also mounting evidence that an obese person has “increased risk of cancers of the gallbladder, stomach, brain, thyroid, ovary, and cervix, as well as multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and aggressive prostate cancer.”

Should cancer survivors/patients be physically active?

Yes! Cancer survivors/patients should be physically active and exercise (under the care of a physician and/or fitness professional.) Exercise will help cancer survivors maintain a healthy weight; it will also help improve their quality of life. Regular exercise will help patients manage stress, anxiety, depression, boost morale, combat fatigue and those exercising are reported to have a better self image and over all well being.  Many studies have also indicated that cancer survivors who exercise after cancer treatment have a lower rate of recurrence, this correlation specifically relates to those affected by breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer.


Exercise. We all know that its good for us, but learning that exercise is an excellent preventative measure in regards to cancer is certainly a strong motivating factor to hit the gym, yoga studio, pool, and etcetera. If we personally have not been affected by cancer someone close to us most likely has. It’s important to remember that by taking care of ourselves (exercising) we are also taking care of those around us. For more information on the topics discussed I’d recommend watching “The C Word” on Netflix or visiting either of these websites:


Physical Activity Cancer Fact Sheet. American Cancer Society, 2017

Physical Activity and Cancer. National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Health, 2017

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