We all have things we fear. For some people it may be snakes or spiders, for others it might be speaking in public. One of my greatest fears is developing a degenerative disease. To that end, I have made physical activity a priority in my life. Physical activity imparts an additional layer of protection to your body that food alone can’t provide. If you go out and take a walk every day, even if you don’t lose weight, you are giving your body one of the greatest gifts imaginable. We tend to focus more on the external part of our bodies because that is what we see when we look in the mirror. But exercise’s benefit to the inside of your body is where the true value of being active lies. Take a walk with me this year (literally and figuratively) as we look at the relationship of physical activity to your risk for degenerative disease. We’ll start this month with cancer.
Physical Activity and Cancer
Physical activity confers many benefits. Weight control; reduced risk for premature death from diseases such as heart disease and diabetes; and maintenance of healthy bones, muscles, and joints are just a few. Researchers are now learning that physical activity can also influence your risk for getting cancer.
Regular exercise reduces your risk for colon, breast, prostate, lung, and uterine cancers. Of those five, the colon cancer-exercise benefits have been the most highly researched.
The colon is actually made up of several layers. It is important that food waste move through the colon as quickly as possible, to avoid the growth of polyps. A polyp is a benign, non-cancerous tumor.
However, some polyps can turn into cancer. Colon cancer occurs when cells in the colon or rectum become abnormal and divide without control, forming a tumor. The cells may also break away from the original tumor and spread to form new tumors in other parts of the body.
Causes of cancer
Certain factors may increase your risk for developing colon cancer. They include the following:
Age – This is a disease that usually occurs or onsets at late-middle age, unless you have the following:
Family History – Close relatives of persons who have had colon cancer are at higher risk, especially if that person developed the cancer at a young age.
Polyps – Polyps are common in people over the age of 50. Most are benign, but it is important to be screened to determine if they are cancerous.
Diet – Colon cancer is associated with diets that are high in red or processed meats and low in plant foods (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains).
How does exercise help prevent colon cancer?
Your large intestine is like an assembly line with a quality control inspector at the helm. As waste moves along your personal conveyor belt, your body (as the inspector) separates the useful things you can use and sends the rest along for disposal. The longer waste sits in your colon or rectum, the more time harmful compounds have to leach out of the stool and into the tissues of your intestine. When you move your body, you also move waste more rapidly through your colon. How? Physical activity stimulates peristalsis. Peristalsis generates muscular contractions that help push waste through your colon. The less time the layers of your colon are exposed to potential carcinogens, the better, according to the American Cancer Society.
What do I need to do?
The CDC recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days per week, or vigorous activity for 20 minutes three days per week. You don’t need to go to a gym to reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer. By increasing the amount of physical activity in your daily life, you can accomplish the same thing. The protection comes from physical activity, so people who are overweight can reduce their risk by moving more, even if exercise does not result in weight loss.
Sources: National Cancer Institute, CDC, American Cancer Society
Written by: Donna Green, FCS Educator, OSU Extension, Erie County
Reviewed by: Liz Smith, M.S., R.D., L.D. OSU Extension