True or False: Active Living Prevents Cancer

Humans are born to move. During the Paleolithic Period (and in some existing tribes today), humans had to hunt animals or gather rations to survive. In recent years, being physically active is becoming less of a priority, as 80 percent of current jobs in the United States are sedentary. Technology also allows us to buy food and groceries with a swipe of a finger, further minimizing our need to exert ourselves.

It’s widespread knowledge that exercising is essential for good health and well-being. Scientists have even made significant progress in understanding the relationship between physical activity and a leading cause of death worldwide: Cancer. Science and medicine strongly support some conclusions, while other hypotheses spark debates and remain open to investigation.

Understanding Physical Activity, Exercise, and Recreation

Physical activity, by definition, refers to any movement by the body. According to the World Health Organization, engaging in physical activities has several benefits, including:

  • Cardiovascular wellness
  • Psychological and mental wellness
  • Boosts brain activity
  • Improves growth in children

The four domains of physical activity include:

  • Recreational or leisure: Physical activities for enjoyment, such as hobbies and sports
  • Occupational: Physical activities performed at work, including heavy manual labor
  • Transport: Movements to and from different places, such as walking, cycling, or running
  • Household: Chores and other physical activities done at home

On the other hand, exercise refers to any activity requiring physical effort to improve or maintain one’s health and fitness.

People have different physical activity levels and perform various tasks daily. Some might have low occupational and recreational physical activity, but participate actively in household chores. These differences may help assess an individual’s cancer risk.

Link Between Physical Activity and Cancer

Exercise has several health benefits, so it makes sense for scientific researchers to examine its correlation with cancer. A growing body of research already documents how physical activities affect people’s health and cancer risk.

In 2018, an empirical study compared the following categories of recreational physical activity:

  • Individuals who are active before and after a cancer diagnosis
  • Individuals who increased recreational physical activity after diagnosis
  • Individuals who decreased recreational physical activity after diagnosis
  • Individuals who are inactive before and after a cancer diagnosis

The researchers concluded that low-to-moderate recreational physical activity before and after diagnosis decreased cancer mortality, suggesting that even a low amount of physical activity is better than nothing.

However, according to a 2017 umbrella review, there are over 200 types of cancer, and each of them can have different correlations with physical activity. The researchers assessed 541 studies with a total of 770,000 cancer cases. They identified that physical activity is strongly linked with a lower risk of colon and breast cancer compared to other malignancies. Meanwhile, studies on the link between physical activity and endometrial, prostate, and ovarian cancers may be uncertain and biased.

Physical Activity and Breast Cancer

Researchers have suspected a connection between breast cancer risk and physical activity for decades. In a prospective study, scientists followed up with 3137 women diagnosed with breast cancer for over 16 years. They compared the patients who engaged in physical activity for 7 hours or more per week to those who exercised for an hour or less per week. The baseline-only measure suggested that those who engaged in physical activity had a slightly weaker breast cancer risk.

A 1998 review also shows a link between breast cancer and both recreational and occupational physical activity. Researchers reported that a high level of occupational physical activity has associations with a reduced risk of breast cancer. In addition, recreational activities correlate with a 12 to 60 percent reduced risk in premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Scientists suggest that the lower risk may be because of changes in menstrual characteristics, a reduction in body size, or an alteration in the immune system.

Genetic mutation in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes is a significant risk factor for breast cancer. A 2022 study divulged that being active may reduce or delay the risk of breast cancer development among those with mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

Physical Activity and Colorectal Cancer

Scientists have also been investigating the correlation between physical activity and colorectal cancer (CRC) for decades. Evidence from multiple epidemiologic studies revealed that physical activity following a colorectal cancer diagnosis is associated with a lower risk of death from colorectal cancer. Furthermore, according to the National Cancer Institute, a physically active adult may lower their risk of colon cancer by as much as 24 percent.

Researchers explained these findings further in a 2018 review. According to the authors, the metabolic, inflammatory, and hormonal pathways that exercise stimulates may be responsible for lowering CRC risk. 

In a 2018 study, the researchers looked into the lesser-known domains: transport and household physical activities. After analyzing 23,586 individuals with CRC, regular recreational activity may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, with occupational physical activities also showing a potential link. Transport and household-related tasks did not appear to reduce CRC incidence.

Other Cancer Types With Questionable Evidence

Aside from breast and colorectal cancer, the link between reduced incidence and other cancer types is debatable. In particular, cancer studies in the endometrium, prostate, and ovaries have conflicting results. For example, in 2007, a systematic review concluded that physical activity decreases the risk of endometrial cancer. In contrast, a 2017 analysis of endometrial cancer survivors showed statistically insignificant results. Therefore, further research and substantial evidence are necessary to confirm how physical activity reduces cancer incidence in other malignancy types.

True and False: Active Living, Lower Cancer Risk

While engaging in physical activities alone cannot prevent cancer, research has demonstrated its strong potential. From taking a few steps daily to doing yoga, exercise is an effective lifestyle intervention that positively impacts your health, including reducing the likelihood of some cancers.

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