Exercise has always been a core pillar of my proactive lifestyle regimen for living with (aka hosting) cancer.
My daily movement routine includes some form or combination of cardio, weights, and Pilates. My well-known love of moving my body—and deep interest in exercise science and its effect on cancer is captured here.
When I was diagnosed with ‘incurable’ leukemia over 30 years ago, there was no literature that supported exercise as an evidence-based approach to incorporate into managing and treating a diagnosis.
For me, fortunately, I intuitively knew not to wait for the science to catch up before leveling up my exercise routine.
Then, in 2003, despite my best efforts, when leukemia was raging in my body, producing a chronic low-grade fever and auto-immune hemolytic anemia, I was told not to exercise. My oncologist feared that my heart would be at risk with undue physical activity. “Stay indoors and take it easy”, he said. So, I did that for about a week, until I became quite depressed.
When I pushed myself out the door and into a verdant park, to walk—and eventually into a pool to swim a few laps—the depression melted away, even if the nagging low-grade fever remained.
The point is, I needed to continue to move my body—and move it often—during that period of acute illness during the summer of 2003. (It is so hard to believe that was 20 years ago.)
Coming of Age for Cancer and Exercise Science
It took decades for the American Cancer Society, American Institute for Cancer Research, and National Cancer Institute to include guidance on incorporating exercise (and a healthy diet).
It wasn’t until several years ago during a Society for Integrative Oncology conference in New York that I heard my first presentation on exercise science. Lee Jones, an exercise scientist at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, was sharing recent results from a study his lab did with mice injected with human breast cancer.
The resulting data showed that aerobic exercise reduced tumor growth by conditioning the animal’s cancer to become more sensitive to chemotherapy—raising the possibility that exercise may change underlying tumor biology, making cancer easier to treat.
New Israeli Cancer and Exercise Study
Recently, researchers at Tel Aviv University have reported the results of a new study showing the risk of metastatic cancer can be reduced within a particular segment of the study group by 72% through aerobic exercise. They specifically looked at high intensity interval training (HIIT), and its impact on the incidence of metastatic disease.
[BQ] If so far the general message to the public has been ‘be active, be healthy’, now we can explain how aerobic activity can maximize the prevention of the most aggressive and metastatic types of cancer. ~Prof. Carmit Levy, Department of Human Genetics and Biochemistry, and Yftach Gepner, PhD, School of Public Health and the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute.
The study, found here, and published as the cover story in a recent edition of the prestigious journal, Cancer Research, included a mouse model and data from healthy human subjects before and after running.
The human epidemiological data, collected on approximately 3,000 individuals for about 20 years (all healthy at time of recruitment), had a modest impact on those who developed low metastatic stages, and showed a whopping 72% reduction of metastatic disease for those with more intense metastatic diagnoses, participating in high intensity aerobic activity versus those who did not engage in physical exercise.
Results from the animal model showed similar outcomes. These findings were valuable in that they allowed investigators to identify the underlying mechanisms of action—in essence the scientists could ‘show their work’, therefore explain their ‘why’.
Samples of organs were collected from the healthy, fit mice, before and after being injected with malignant disease, and before and after high intensity aerobic exercise. From this, researchers discovered that aerobic exercise greatly reduced metastatic disease in the lymph nodes, liver, and lungs.
Studies have demonstrated that physical exercise reduces the risk for some types of cancer by up to 35%. This positive effect is similar to the impact of exercise on other conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. In this study we added new insight, showing that high-intensity aerobic exercise, which derives its energy from sugar, can reduce the risk of metastatic cancer by as much as 72%. ~Prof. Carmit Levy and Yftach Gepner, PhD
The research team hypothesized that a significant increase in glucose consumption, induced by intense aerobic activity, was the driving factor in the remarkable decrease in metastatic disease.
Metastatic cancer is the leading cause of death in Israel, where this study population resides. This remarkable discovery may lead to viable, actionable guidelines to help prevent metastatic disease.
Our results suggest that healthy individuals should also include high-intensity components in their fitness programs… It must be emphasized that physical exercise, with its unique metabolic and physiological effects, exhibits a higher level of cancer prevention than any medication or medical intervention to date. ~Yftach Gepner, PhD
You can access the full published paper here.
It’s Time: Move. Your. Body.
Now, we are starting to see growing evidence that goes beyond exercise as just a sensible lifestyle factor to help prevent malignant disease.
We all know that sports and physical exercise are good for our health. Our study, examining the internal organs, discovered that exercise changes the whole body, so that the cancer cannot spread, and the primary tumor also shrinks in size. ~Prof. Carmit Levy
Additionally, we are investigating exercise as a way to improve efficacy of cancer treatment itself—and to reduce the often-deleterious side effects of toxic anticancer agents, and radiation therapy.
Exercise is free… and freeing. Every day we receive more information to support physical activity as lifesaving.
Its positive affect on physical and emotional health is irrefutable. If it could be bottled it would be the most efficacious and commercially viable ‘drug’ of all time.
And though the impact of exercise for cancer prevention, during active treatment and cancer survivorship, is profound—the positive emotional impact of exercise for those of us hosting a malignancy is equally potent and must be leveraged at every opportunity. Again, if exercise could be bottled as an antidepressant and antianxiety ‘drug’ for those living with cancer it would be a blockbuster brand.
I think other than all the physiology and biology that we talk about, the sense of control is massive, and exercise is something you can do that is one-hundred percent under your control to influence your own trajectory of recovery. ~ Lee Jones, PhD, The Lee Jones Lab, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
A recent and well-illustrated study, such as this one, with a population group of over 70,000 people, demonstrates how important it is to move, and explains the role of oxygen in the body. More importantly, it reports the amount of vigorous exercise required to achieve certain results.
And there’s more evidence to shout the ‘exercise message’ from the rooftops. This has to do with the benefits of an oxygen-rich blood flow to a tumor and its environment as being helpful, even though it seems counterintuitive and that starving a tumor of oxygen would make more sense. (When there is not enough oxygen in blood or tissue to maintain a balanced state (homeostasis) the condition created is called hypoxia. If a tumor becomes hypoxic it can become isolated and impervious to treatment.)
References to studies by the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, with respect to oxygen, exercise, and tumors, found that the oxygen-rich blood flow allowed a more efficient delivery of cancer treatment to the target area, thus keeping the lines of communication open.
Picture exercise as an efficient postal worker who gets important documents to the correct address through rain, hail, sleet, and snow.
Imagine a gym or track as part of standard clinical cancer care. Just like a teaching kitchen should be part of every clinic, medical center, and hospital. Meanwhile, back in the ‘real’ world, make strength-training and HIIT, and your kitchen, an integral part of your own personal anticancer regimen.
To those individuals that are not doing anything right now, even just going out a few days a week—for even ten to fifteen minutes of light walking—that’s how you get going. ~Lee Jones, PhD
If your feet and joints are in good shape—back, knees, hips, ankles—the park is calling and, if you are medically cleared for vigorous exercise, there’s never been a better time (or researched reason) to stream that HIIT video, head to the pool, participate in a sport, or join up with some active folks at the gym. Just be proactively active… aka move!
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Photo Credit: Bigstockphoto.com/SMEEitz