Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to improve your health and lower your risk for many cancers. This includes colon, breast and endometrial cancers. And, if you’re a cancer survivor, exercise may lower your risk of recurrence.
“Exercise helps reduce your chances for cancer by helping you lose fat and maintain a healthy weight,” says Allica Austin, an exercise physiologist in MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center. It also lowers your risk for chronic diseases and produces hormones that help reduce stress and lower blood pressure.
To reap these health benefits, you should aim for two-and-a-half hours of moderate physical activity, or an hour and 15 minutes of more vigorous physical activity each week. If you’re new to exercise or haven’t been active in a while, start slowly and work your way up to longer sessions.
“Every step you take burns calories and helps maintain muscle mass,” Austin says. “Even if it’s taking the long walk to the printer or stretching at your desk, moving more and sitting less is good for your health.”
Make everyday activities count as exercise
You can get your physical activity in without spending grueling time in the gym or on the track. Many everyday activities count as exercise, as long as you do them with at least moderate intensity.
“You should be working enough to raise your heart and breathing rate,” Austin says. During moderate activity, you should also be able to talk in short sentences but not sing.
If you increase the intensity of your activity to a vigorous level, you should be breathing more rapidly and only able to speak a few words at a time. Here are some examples of moderate and vigorous activities that you can count as exercise.
Include strength training
To reap all the rewards of exercise and reduce your cancer risk, you should include muscle strengthening activities – also known as strength training – at least two days per week.
“Strength training can increase muscle strength, improve bone density and build lean body weight,” Austin says. Lean body weight increases your metabolism, so you burn more calories and maintain a healthy weight.
To get your strength training in, try lifting weights, using resistance bands or doing exercises that use your body weight, like Pilates or yoga.
Be sure to allow your muscles 48 hours to recover from a workout. While they recover, you can do moderate to vigorous physical activity. Or, you can strength train consecutive days by switching muscle groups (upper and lower body).
No matter what kind of exercise you do, be sure to stretch the muscles you're focusing on after your workout. Stretching can help reduce soreness and prevent injuries.
Sedentary behavior, or sitting for extended periods, can increase your body fat. And, too much total body fat can increase your risk for many cancers and heart disease.
Use these tips to work more activity into your day:
- Take exercise breaks at work.
- Use the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Go dancing with your partner or friends.
- Take a walk after dinner instead of watching TV.
- Join a community sports team.
- Engage in active play with your partner, children or friends.
“Limiting your sedentary behavior is a great start to increasing your physical activity,” Austin says. “Start with the things you feel comfortable doing, and then slowly do more.”
Adapt your schedule
You’re busy. Work, family and social engagements can put exercise on the back burner. But it shouldn’t. Look at your schedule and determine what you can do.
“You’ll be successful at increasing your physical activity if you’re realistic and flexible with your schedule,” Austin says. “If you already hit the snooze button every morning, don’t expect to wake up at 5 a.m. to exercise. Plan to walk at lunch or do a before- or after-dinner activity.”
Ready to get started? Make a plan, set goals, get social support to keep you accountable and then, get moving.