New Findings: The Link Between Cancer and Exercise

Lance Armstrong has always been seen as the exception, rather than the rule. Conventional wisdom told us that he succeeded in spite of his cancer; that exercise is the realm of the healthy, rather than the ill. And it is that popular image of the bedridden, languishing cancer patient so prevalent in movies, media and culture that informed our reaction to Armstrong’s resurgence. How the hell was a guy with debilitating cancer able to repeatedly succeed on the world’s stage – in one of its most grueling athletic feats? Well, a recent spate of research (probably, in some small way, influenced or inspired by his Tour wins) into the relationship between cancer and exercise suggests that Lance Armstrong’s recovery may have actually been aided by his training regimen.

First of all, it has been shown that exercise can significantly reduce a person’s risk of developing cancer. For women especially, regular exercise is an important cancer deterrent. Coupled with plenty of rest, moderate doses of physical activity have “consistently been associated with reduced risk of cancer incidence at several sites, including breast and colon cancers.” Scientists suspect the preventive powers of exercise can be linked to its effect on hormones, body weight, and immune system strength, but they’re not sure.

And, as the Swedish medical school Karolinska Institutet so bluntly put it, exercise “cuts cancer death in men,” too. The Swedish researchers examined some forty thousand men of varying ages for seven years. Of that group, around 3700 developed cancer; 1,153 died from it. For those cancer patients who also walked or cycled for at least thirty minutes a day, the survival rate increased 33% against those who didn’t exercise at all. An extensive (60 to 90 minutes a day) exercise program was even shown to reduce the incidence of cancer by 16%.

New research also shows that it’s never too early to start reaping the benefits of regular exercise. Beginning as early as age twelve, girls and young women who exercise regularly enjoy a substantially lower risk of getting breast cancer before menopause. A study of almost 65,000 women revealed that active women had a 23% reduced risk. Furthermore, early exercise – between the ages of 12 and 22 – had the most effect on risk later in life.

While science often leads the way, medicine can be slow to follow. Up until recently, cancer patients were mostly relegated to the bed – either by the severity of the illness, the insistence of a concerned loved one, or the caution of a doctor. We’re not all Lance Armstrong, after all, and one might assume an exercise regimen would only make an already painful existence even more unbearable. The NY Times reports a growing trend in cancer treatment programs, however. Doctors are beginning to listen to the research that says exercise can help, and to actual patients – not the Lance Armstrongs of the cancer world, but the regular folks – who insist that exercise helped recovery (or, at least, made them feel better). Instead of loading patients up with chemicals and heavy meds and telling them to “take it easy,” many cancer programs are loading patients up with chemicals and heavy meds and telling them to “get sweaty.” Sounds good to us.

As Primal pragmatists, we might look at cancer as an extreme case of being out of shape. Not to equate the two or suggest that being fat, slow, and out of breath is in any way similar to having cancer, but the end results are similar. Cancer, by and large, leaves many people physically weak, depressed, and out of shape. Not getting enough exercise also leaves many people physically weak, depressed, and out of shape. Exercise, on the other hand, builds physical strength and endurance, releases mood-enhancing endorphins, and gets you fit (that it also improves libido and stimulates the brain are accessory to this discussion). But most of all, as anyone who’s ever worked up a sweat or beat a personal best or climbed a mountain will tell you, exercising just makes you feel good. Damn good. And feeling good – mentally and physically – isn’t just some abstract value whose only advantage is inherent (though that’s certainly enough!); a person’s mental, spiritual, and physical states all affect our corporeal health. For regular people like us without some debilitating disease to deal with, exercise is a luxury that undoubtedly improves our lives. For people like Lance Armstrong, the multitudes referenced in the various studies, and the countless Groks who, throughout history, lived “the right way” and avoided cancer without even knowing it, exercise is a crucial necessity.

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need motivation to exercise. Hell, you’re probably hovering over your laptop dripping sweat from the burpee sets you just did. But what about the people around you? Pass this post around. Build a slosh tube or a set of clubbells as cheap, inventive Christmas presents. Drop subtle (or not so subtle hints) around your aging father or your stressed out sister with “no time to exercise.” Let them know that exercise isn’t just about looking good or losing weight, but that it’s about feeling good – and even preventing cancer.

moomoobloo Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

The Biggest Myth About Cancer: That it Just “Happens”

Higher Cancer Risk if You’re Fat

Yoga Good for Beating Symptoms of Breast Cancer

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17 thoughts on “New Findings: The Link Between Cancer and Exercise”

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  1. hey mark!!

    Didn’t :Lance kinda give himself cancer by overtraining….I think something should be said about that…guys like him and olympic athletes overtrain…eat horribly most of the time(carb addicts), and destroy them self in the process.

    t r o y

  2. I have had melanomas. If the doctor wants a mole, he gets it no argument. Actually just recently had a couple more biopsies done on “suspicious characters”. I am happy to report that they were only “abnormal” and not cancerous this time around.

    The SoG

  3. I second Troy’s opinion/question. I’m sure the people that were taking part in the study didnt come anywhere close to what elite cyclists are riding each day.

  4. Troy, Vasco, I do have a strong opinion on the negative effects of overtraining. And I do believe that some people (particularly many who race long distance stuff all the time) increase their risk for cancer and heart disease by overtraining and eating the high carb diet to fuel it. However, in these studies, the “exercisers” were generally doing more of what we call the classic Primal Blueprint “moderate doses” and “low level aerobic” stuff (walking or easy cycling)…and not very much of it compared to the elite athletes I rag on so much.

  5. Hey Mark,

    To be honest, I used to semi-shake my head at people who considered their workout to be a walk around the park because I felt like with a little shove, they could be in much better shape if they added in strength training and other healthy workout habits.

    However, since I decided to drastically alter my routine to include much more walking, I have seen some great things. I’m happier, my legs feel stronger during sprints and lifting, my pain threshold has increased, my agility has been improving and many more great results! I think that walking is so underrated. People should give it more credit and incorporate it into their lives more. Today, I parked my car about 2 miles away from the football stadium and just walked back. Not jogged, just walked. It felt great!

    All the Best,

    Andrew R

  6. hey mark,

    its just that the article makes it sound like lances training was what made his cancer go away….when it was his training that caused his cancer.

    t r o y

  7. I haven’t been sick since I started exercising and eating right about five years ago. At least, I don’t think I’ve been sick. It used to be that when I had the flu, I could barely stumble out of bed. Oh, wait a sec, I was like that even when I *wasn’t* sick!

    Now, when everyone around me is laid up, I might feel a teensy bit tired and queasy, and I’m not sure if I caught the virus or not.

    Obviously, when you start out stronger, you’re going to be better off if you lose most of your strength. This is one of those “duh!” studies for me.

  8. Glad to see more and more evidence linking exercise with a reduced cancer risk. As you rightly say very few people link cancer with lifestyle. Whilst we don’t know the exact causes of cancer yet the evidence strongly suggest that lifestyle is a very big contributing factor. Unfortunately, most people are unwilling to admit this and invest 30-60 minutes of their time each day on exercising.

  9. I definitely agree that a part of it may be feeling empowered. I remember reading about some studies that showed that if you gave terminally ill patients a feeling of control over their health and therapy they were more likely to recover. Exercise may play a part in that.

  10. I agree wholeheartedly- Exercise is something that prevents ALL illnesses, I think once the body has to recover from exercise it gives it a whole clean sweep, eliminating toxins and rejuvenating everything while strengthening immunity.

    Great article- and I’ll pass it on!

  11. i think one if the biggest benefits on exercise is that it burns blood sugar directly or burns glycogen which allows a greater buffer for sugar consumption, either way it reduces the damaging affects of sugar & insulin, now known to play a major role in all diseases including cancer.

  12. This is probably in the wrong spot, but on the topic of colon cancer….PB encourages eating red meat and avoiding grains. I was under the impression that the grains were very helpful in preventing colon cancer. Any insight or research on this?