Signs & Symptoms
Exercise your option to reduce your risk of cancer
Go ahead. Call five people in the community to ask if anyone they know has cancer. Odds are good you’ll hear “yes” probably more than once.
That’s not surprising. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in America. Even more worrisome, African Americans are more likely than people of other racial backgrounds to get and die of many cancers, including colon and prostate cancer.
Fortunately, the news isn’t all bad. You can take steps to cut your risks for developing certain cancers. Abundant evidence shows that being physically active substantially lowers colon cancer and breast cancer risks, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
Last year, a team of researchers from Washington University School of Medicine and Harvard University sifted through data from more than 50 studies on colon cancer. They learned that people who exercised the most reduced their risk for colon cancer by 21 percent (women) to 24 percent (men) compared to those who exercised the least. Likewise, an analysis of nearly 50 studies on breast cancer found that regular physical activity cut the risk by 15 to 20 percent, and even more for each additional active hour per week.
Exercise may also offer protection against other cancers, such as uterine, lung and prostate cancer, although not all studies agree on this. Experts have found that exercise can be beneficial even after cancer has been diagnosed.
Most research focuses on aerobic activities (brisk walking, jogging, swimming, or biking, for example), which bump up your heart beat and breathing by working large muscle groups continuously. Experts at NCI estimate 30 to 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous activity will reduce both breast and colon cancer risks. Breaking this into smaller chunks lasting at least 10 minutes is fine.
What is moderate exercise?
If you can talk, but not sing, the activity is moderate.
- Basic gardening like raking or trimming shrubs
- Biking on ground that is level or has few hills
- Catch-and-throw sports (baseball, softball,
- Doubles tennis
- Walking briskly
- Water aerobics
What is vigorous exercise?
If you can blurt out just a few words before stopping to catch your breath, the activity is vigorous.
- Biking at speeds over 10 mph
- Aerobic dance
- Heavy gardening (digging or hoeing)
- Hiking uphill
- Jumping rope
- Martial arts
- Jogging or running
- Singles tennis
- Swimming laps
Walking is the simplest way to get started. It’s safe for almost everyone — even people who are not in good health. All you need is a pair of comfortable, well-padded sneakers and a pedometer if you’re counting steps. You’ll find tips for footwear, good form, setting goals and more at “Go Walking” on the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts web site. If you aren’t usually active, or if you have chronic health problems like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis or asthma, call your doctor first to get the go-ahead and find out whether you need to adjust any medications or start out especially slowly.
Aim for a long-term goal of 30 to 60 minutes or 10,000 steps a day, but start much smaller:
- Write down a goal or steps that you’re certain you can meet. Better to nail it than fail it. Success snowballs.
- Exceed your goal, when possible. Let’s say you set out to walk 10 minutes, or accumulate 4,000 steps, on Monday and Saturday. If you manage more days or longer walks, that’s fabulous. Just don’t push too hard. Sore muscles or blisters may break your winning streak.
- Once a week, add a day until you’re walking five to seven days. When you reach that goal, tack on time or steps every week. If you’re clocking minutes, add 5-minute increments: 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, etc. If you’re counting steps, increase your daily step goal by 10 percent. For example: 10 percent of 4,000 steps = 400 steps, so your new goal is 4,400 steps.
- Expect setbacks. Rain, snow, ice and gloom of night make most of us think twice about walking — so plan some indoor options. An exercise DVD? March or jog in place, or crack out the jump rope? Head for a gym, mall or community center?
What if you haven’t been doing any exercise?
Let’s say walking up a flight of stairs leaves you wrung out, or even rising from a chair is a struggle. That’s not unusual when people are out of shape or recovering from a serious illness, especially if they are older or overweight. So how can you possibly start a walking program — never mind take up vigorous exercise — if the least little exertion leaves you huffing as hard as if you’ve just run the Boston Marathon?
First, call your doctor to make sure a gradual plan like the one described here would be helpful and safe for you. Build stamina slowly, bit by bit, day by day. Start by getting up from the chair or couch to walk in place or move around for five minutes an hour, several times a day. You can set a timer to remind you, or get up during TV commercial breaks. Add some simple movements. Try a few dance steps. Touch your shoulders, then straighten your arms overhead. Hold two soup cans at your sides, palms facing forward, then slowly lift them toward your shoulders. Pause, then slowly lower them.
Once a week, add another minute to every bout of activity, so that five minutes becomes six, seven, eight, nine and ten. If you feel like you’ve reached your limit, stay at that level for an extra week. Have a setback? Try again tomorrow. When you reach 10 continuous minutes of movement, celebrate! Then lace up your shoes and try a walk outside.