Doctors and magazine articles talk about leading a healthy lifestyle. But what exactly does that mean? And how can it help prevent cancer?
You’re probably thinking it translates to “eat right and exercise.” And that’s a big part of it, says Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., director of the Center for Energy Balance in Cancer Prevention and Survivorship at MD Anderson.
But a healthy lifestyle is much more than just diet and physical activity, she says.
1. Maintain a healthy weight
First and foremost,maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do to do live healthy and lower your cancer risk.
What matters about your weight is the amount of body fat you carry around. A higher percentage puts you at risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
A handful of factors can contribute to your weight, including your diet, activity levels, genes and age. Basen-Engquist suggests ways you can stay lean.
- Get moving. Aim for at least two-and-a-half hours of moderate aerobic exercise, or an hour and 15 minutes of more vigorous physical activity each week. You also should try strength training at least two days a week.
- Avoid too much sitting. Even if you exercise for 30 minutes in the morning, sitting the rest of the day can pose health risks. Recent research has linked too much sitting to diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer. So, break up your workday by taking a five-minute walk every hour.
- Eat for your health. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is important to any healthy lifestyle. Aim to fill two-thirds of your plate with produce. MD Anderson’s nutrition experts also advise to:
- Limit red meat and avoid processed meats.
- Drink lots of water.
- Avoid sugary drinks and sodas.
- Avoid salty foods and processed foods like pre-packaged meals, chips, cookies and other treats.
2. Use good judgment with alcohol
On the other hand, several recent studies have found low or moderate alcohol consumption may lower your risk of death from all causes.
If you don’t already drink, don’t start, Basen-Engquist says. But if you enjoy alcohol, keeping your habit to one drink a day for women or two for men is a good goal, she adds.
3. Get your beauty sleep
“We can’t live or function without sleep – it enables us to accomplish the things we want to in life,” says Diwakar Balachandran, M.D., medical director in the MD Anderson Sleep Center.
Plus, research shows chronic sleep loss may lead to weight gain and other health problems, including cancer.
“We need to give sleep the priority it deserves,” Balachandran says. Most adults need roughly seven to eight hours of solid ZZZs every night. Not getting enough sleep? These eight healthy sleep habits can help.
4. Avoid tobacco
This is one of the biggies. Research shows tobacco use is the cause of 25% to 30% of cancer deaths. But despite those risks, roughly one in five adults still smokes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“People tend to know very little when it comes to the dangers of smoking,” says Alexander Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D., professor of behavioral science at MD Anderson. What you should know, he says, is that all tobacco products – including e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco – are dangerous and contain cancer-causing chemicals. So, using tobacco any in any form puts your life at risk.
Also, you should avoid secondhand smoke. “It can cause lung cancer in non-smokers and is associated with heart disease and asthma attacks,” Prokhorov says. No level of exposure is safe, he warns.
5. Be smart in the sun
It takes more than a little sunscreen to avoid skin cancer, including its deadliest form, melanoma.
Most people don’t apply enough sunscreen and don’t reapply it often enough.
To protect your skin:
- Put a generous amount of sunscreen on every part of your body exposed to the sun.
- Reapply sunscreen liberally every two hours. If you’re sweating or swimming, reapply it even more often.
- Avoid direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. That’s when the sun’s UV rays are most powerful.
- Wear protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
In addition, avoid tanning beds. They emit the same harmful UV rays as the sun and cause skin cancer. In fact, starting indoor tanning before age 18 may increase a user’s melanoma risk by 85%.
6. Get screened
Cancer screening exams are medical tests done when you don’t have any signs of illness. They can help find cancer early, when the chances for successfully treating the disease are greatest.
Follow MD Anderson’s recommendations for screening exams, and talk to your doctor. He or she can help determine which exams are right for you.
“All of this may seem like a lot to take on,” Basen-Engquist says. “But you don’t have to make all of these changes overnight to start seeing the health benefits.”
To get started, she recommends adopting just one or two of these healthy habits. Once you’ve grown used to them, you can gradually add the others to your healthy lifestyle.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 877-632-6789.