How exercise can reduce your cancer risk
Exercise and the lymphatic system
Your lymphatic system is a central part of your immune system. Learn how it works and how you can support its vital role in cancer prevention.
You’ve probably heard of lymph nodes. Perhaps you know that you have a whole lymphatic system in your body. But do you know what it does?
This little discussed network in your body is a crucial part of your immune system and it has a central role to play in cancer prevention.
Your body relies on your lymphatic system to remove waste, like bacteria, viruses, toxins and abnormal cells that can lead to cancer. And every step you take helps it do its job.
That’s because the lymphatic system does not have an organ like the heart to pump fluid around your body. Lymph fluid relies on movement and the contraction of your muscles to make it flow.
What is the lymphatic system?
The lymphatic system is made up of tiny tubes called lymphatic vessels, which collect lymph fluid. These vessels route the fluid through the lymph nodes, which house immune cells that kill off abnormal cells and other harmful substances.
The lymph fluid then drains back into the blood stream, which flows through the kidneys where waste is removed and passed out in your urine.
“The lymphatic system is really part of the immune system,” says Edward Chang, M.D., an MD Anderson surgeon who treats cancer patients who develop problems with their lymphatic system after treatment.
“It is part of how your body recognizes and attacks abnormal cells that have mutations that can progress to cancer if left unchecked,” he says.
How does exercise help your lymphatic system?
There are many systems in your body that rely on exercise. The lymphatic system is no exception.
“The lymphatic system is stimulated by moving your muscles and getting your heart rate up,” says MD Anderson Senior Physical Therapist Sarah Cleveland. “All these things stimulate the lymphatic flow.”
The contraction of your muscles becomes the pump that helps the fluid get around your body. Exercise can help the lymphatic system flow more effectively and potentially help prevent infections and other diseases, like cancer.
“Any exercise is helpful for the lymphatic system,” says Cleveland. “Exercise under water is especially helpful because of the pressure from the water.”
Stay at a healthy weight
Your lymphatic system also works best if you maintain a healthy weight. This is another reason why exercise is helpful – it helps you keep your weight down.
“Obesity does cause damage to the lymphatic system,” says Dr. Chang. “It makes people more likely to experience problems like lymphedema where lymph fluid gets stuck and cannot drain from certain parts of the body.”
Obesity is linked to 12 types of cancer because it causes inflammation and hormonal imbalances. If your lymphatic system is struggling it may compound those problems.
“A healthy lifestyle, which includes a healthy diet and exercise is very important,” says Chang.