Exercise as Cancer Therapy

Reading time: 3 minutes

Larissa Biggers

You have probably heard that exercise can ward off all sorts of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, stroke, and even cancer. But did you know that it can aid in recovery and even prevent the spread of metastatic colorectal cancer?

Exercise and cancer progression

Current research out of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that exercise is associated with reduced progression of colorectal cancer. The six-year study, the first to examine the relationship of physical activity with survival in advanced, metastatic colorectal cancer patients, determined that those who engaged in moderate exercise while undergoing chemotherapy experienced a 20% reduction in cancer progression or death, as well as a 27% decline in severe treatment-related side effects. Moderate exercise was defined as an equivalent of 30 or more minutes of moderate activity daily. The impact of exercise on overall survival was not statistically significant, meaning that the results might be due to chance, but warrants further study. 

Exercise and cancer recurrence

Two recent studies explored the role of exercise on the outcomes of patients who had completed treatment for colon cancer. The first looked at 832 individuals with advanced, stage III colon cancer. All had undergone surgery and follow-up chemotherapy. Six months post-therapy,  those who had participated in regular exercise equivalent to walking six or more hours a week were 50% more likely to be alive and cancer-free than their less-active counterparts.  

Results of the second study were similar to the first; 573 patients diagnosed with early to advanced colon cancer were assessed six months after completing treatment; those who had increased their level of physical activity after diagnosis had an approximately 50% lower risk of dying from colon cancer (or any other cause) than those who were inactive. Interestingly, exercising before diagnosis did not have an impact on outcome.  Activity after the completion of standard therapy was what made the difference.

Exercise and Cancer Prevention

The aforementioned studies bode well for cancer patients, but there is also good news for the rest of us. Data shows that adults who increase the intensity, duration, or frequency of their current level of activity can lower their risk of developing colon cancer by 30 to 40% compared to those who have a sedentary lifestyle.

Furthermore, a study of 28,250 women published in the British Journal of Medicine shows that physical activity during adolescence is inversely associated with risk of colorectal adenoma. Specifically, at least an hour of physical activity per day from ages 12 to 22 reduced risk of adenoma by 7%. Physical activity that started in adulthood lowered risk by 9%. Women who exercised as both adolescents and adults reaped the most significant benefits, lowering their risk of adenoma by 24% compared to those with little or no physical activity in adolescence and adulthood.

Regular exercise can improve your health in a variety of ways, including better sleep, easier weight loss and maintenance, and improved mood. While physical activity is not a substitute for chemotherapy or any other standard treatment, it can also reduce the risk for colorectal cancer progression and recurrence, and for contracting the disease in the first place.

Edited by Sara Musetti

Works Discussed

AmSurg. (n.d.). Exercise, digestive health and colon cancer prevention. Retrieved October 8, 2019, from https://www.stopcoloncancernow.com/colon-cancer-prevention/prevention/exercise.

Rezende, Leandro Fórnias Machado De, et al. “Physical Activity during Adolescence and Risk of Colorectal Adenoma Later in Life: Results from the Nurses’ Health Study II.” British Journal of Cancer, vol. 121, no. 1, 22 May 2019, pp. 86–94., doi:10.1038/s41416-019-0454-1.

Warner, J. (2006, July 14). Exercise Boosts Colon Cancer Survival. Retrieved October 9, 2019, from https://www.webmd.com/colorectal-cancer/news/20060714/exercise-boosts-colon-cancer-survival. 

Image Credit: http://www.freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/15998

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