The benefits of physical activity go far beyond muscle and strength. Here are five ways that exercise fights cancer and ways that you can help prevent that.

Exercise Fights Cancer
Exercise fights cancer by boosting the immune system and lowering inflammation, among other mechanisms.

1. Exercise and Immunity

Exercise boosts the immune system. It does this by boosting natural killer (NK) cells in tumors. These specialized white blood cells act as our immune system’s assassins, infiltrating cancer cells and causing tumors to shrink.

2. Exercise and Inflammation

Study after study has shown that long-term exercise programs reduce levels of inflammation, a critical component of tumor progression.  High intensity interval (HIIT) training, in particular, stimulates the release of chemical messengers that inhibit the effects of inflammatory molecules produced by body fat.

3. Exercise and Insulin

Physical activity reduces the amount of insulin in our blood. Insulin can trigger cell division, which is the first step in the process of cancer development. Lowering insulin levels could prevent cancer cells from multiplying.

Research has shown that prostate cancer incidence is more than 2.5 times higher in men with the highest blood insulin levels.  Stomach cancer risk is 100% higher in those with the highest insulin levels! And female reproductive cancers have been strongly linked to elevated insulin levels.

Exercise leads to beneficial changes on a cellular, metabolic, and hormonal level that reduce your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.
Exercise leads to beneficial changes on a cellular, metabolic, and hormonal level that reduce your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.

4. Exercise and Estrogen

Exercise lowers blood estrogen levels.  This is important, as women with high estrogen levels in their blood have increased risk for breast cancer. In fact, dozens of studies have shown that women who exercise have a 30 to 40 percent lower risk of breast cancer than their sedentary peers. Women who exercise have less fat and therefore produce less estrogen.

5. Exercise and Leptin

Leptin is a hormone produced by our fat cells. It controls your metabolism, hunger, and energy expenditure.

When leptin levels are high, cancers survive better, grow faster, and spread more. There’s evidence that leptin increases levels of insulin and estrogen, both of which promote cancer growth. Research has shown that breast cancer cells express unusually high levels of leptin and its receptors.  Additionally, it’s been shown that when leptin is high, cancer drugs like Tamoxifen do not work as well to block estrogen.

Exercise—especially sprinting and weight training—can help restore proper leptin function and even reverse leptin resistance.

While the health benefits of exercise typically focus on its proven weight management and cardiovascular effects, increasing evidence supports its therapeutic value for those seeking to prevent and treat cancer as well.  

While any exercise will be beneficial, the intensity, duration, and frequency are important factors we should seek guidance from a qualified fitness professional when trying to safely and effectively apply these research findings to a new or existing exercise routine.