I’ve talked a lot about how regular exercise lowers your cancer risk. In fact, the disease-preventing benefits of physical activity are pretty much cemented at this point.
But there’s not much research exploring the role of exercise for patients with active cancer diagnoses. Sure, research shows a connection between exercise and cancer prevention… but could it also be part of the cure?
Sloan Kettering researchers think so. And their efforts to prove this hypothesis in actual human patients are poised to turn conventional cancer therapy on its head.
Of course, we already know that a cancer diagnosis is life-altering. And in the wake of such devastating news, many people get depressed. In turn, depression often leads to sedentary behaviors and poor eating habits (whether you eat too little or not the healthiest foods). This can sometimes create a downward spiral that is certainly not going to help anyone battling cancer. Exercise can relieve some of the anxiety. And it has clear benefits for depression.
But I’m talking about more than psychological effects today. This new field of “exercise oncology” is exploring the actual physical pathways exercise that can change the course of disease and influence patient outcomes.
Boost cancer cell death by 150 percent—just by stepping on the treadmill
Exercise physiologists at Kansas State University have been exploring the mechanisms by which exercise combats tumors in animal models for the last several years. One of their studies, featured in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute back in 2014, focused on prostate tumor growth in rats.1
Results showed that tumor blood flow increases by as much as 200 percent during exercise. And while it may seem like this would fuel cancer growth, in fact, just the opposite is true. This increase in blood flow delivers a surge of antioxidants and cancer-fighting immune cells directly to the tumor.
It also increases oxygen. And when a tumor is steeped in oxygen, it becomes less active. This prevents both cancer growth and metastasis.
Lack of oxygen (technically known as “hypoxia”), on the other hand, has the reverse effect. Tumor hypoxia triggers the release of growth factors, ultimately facilitating cancer’s spread.
Stunningly, animal research on the effects of exercise points to reductions in tumor hypoxia as dramatic as 90 percent.2 That’s better than any cancer drug. And all it requires is consistent, moderate-intensity exercise. We’re talking something as simple as walking on the treadmill or around your neighborhood.
Studies on animal models of breast cancer have shown the same incredible promise. Exercise can alter the cancer’s “microenvironment”—bringing breast tissue back to a more normal, pre-cancerous state.3
In fact, one study of breast cancer in mice (published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute just last year) showed that exercise stalls tumor growth significantly. Even more exciting—it increases cancer cell death by 150 percent.4
Of course, you know my opinions on animal research. It’s a great place to start—but it’s not the kind of research you should base hard-and-fast conclusions or recommendations on.
Luckily, researchers at Sloan Kettering have set out to change that.
Scientists testing real-life results in breast, prostate, and lung cancer patients
Scientists are conducting clinical trials examining the impact of exercise in cancer patients as I write this. The goal is to see if regular training can prevent or delay the spread and recurrence of malignant disease.5
One early-stage trial is following 72 women with stage 4 breast cancer. This means the disease has spread to other parts of the body. And it’s generally considered incurable. (These studies always start with the “incurables.” Granted, this is considered the only responsible way to do things—but it definitely makes it harder to achieve “statistically significant” results, which is how the mainstream judges a treatment’s effectiveness. It’s almost as if the medical community wants these studies to fail.)
Another study is looking at 100 women with atypical breast cells. (This puts you at a higher risk of invasive cancer.) Subjects will engage in six months of low, medium, or high “doses” of treadmill walking, ranging from 75 to 300 minutes per week. A fourth group will serve as a “sedentary” placebo, which represents the standard of care.
By study’s end, researchers hope to find out whether regular cardio lowers cancer gene expression in breast tissue. And, if so, they hope to pin down the optimal “dose” of exercise to achieve this effect.
Men are in the mix at Sloan Kettering, too. A group of patients on “active surveillance” of early stage prostate cancer will either start a supervised exercise regimen or stick with the standard of care. After 24 weeks, researchers will assess for any promising changes in the prostate tumor’s microenvironment to see if exercise can stall disease progression.
But these are just some highlights. Sloan Kettering has also designed additional studies exploring the benefits of exercise in other types of breast cancer. There’s even a trial planned to investigate exercise therapy in patients with non-small cell lung cancer.
Of course, these studies won’t be completed—let alone published—for some time. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s no real reason to wait. Unlike mainstream cancer treatments, there’s no harmful side effects associated with physical activity. And, in fact, I consider it an essential part of any cancer regimen. Especially if you’re undergoing mainstream treatments.
Outrun cancer—and turn back your heart’s clock
Whether you’re actively battling cancer or you’re currently in remission, you have to do something to work your body. Cancer therapy can send your fitness level plummeting—and evidence suggests these impairments can stick around for years.
In fact, just a short course of chemotherapy can take a toll on your cardiovascular system equivalent to a full decade of normal aging.
Of course, the best way to protect your heart—and your entire body—from the ravages of chemotherapy is to strengthen it. And exercise is, by far, the best way to do that.
Researchers are still trying to figure out the exact amount necessary to combat disease and mitigate the effects of the toxic treatments. I’ll be sure to report back with these results as soon as they’re available. But until that final verdict is in, I can only reiterate my usual advice: Get up and get moving, any way you can.
Preliminary evidence seems to point to 150 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity exercise per week as a minimum goal for patients to aim for. That’s just half an hour, five days a week.
Of course, that may be more than you’re currently able to do—especially if you’re in the midst of cancer treatment.
If that’s the case, just do what you can, and work your way up. Doing some exercise is always better than none at all. And when you’re facing off with cancer, you need to get off of your couch and move around like your life depends on it.
Because it really does.