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Power moves to fight cancer

Jennifer Hopper, MS, FMFA, ACSM-EP-C-CET, director of Employee Wellness, Worklife and Fitness at Piedmont Healthcare, shares how exercise can help prevent cancer.

What I want to impart is that physical activity is essential for us to maintain a balance between the number of calories we consume and the number of calories we're expending.

Obviously, if we're consuming more than we're expending, we are increasing our chances of becoming obese and we know that obesity contributes to many health issues, cancer being one.

Obesity isn't the only thing that exercise can prevent. Exercise also contributes to a lot of other ways to reduce your risk factors for cancer.

With breast cancer, many studies show that physically active women have a lower risk of breast cancer than inactive women – about 12 percent lower. Physical activity has been associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer in both pre-menopausal and post-menopausal women. It’s never too late to start. If you have never exercised, please start.

Purposeful movement

It doesn't have to be complicated. You know, physical activity wasn't always that complicated. We used to never have to think about it because our lifestyle required us to be physically active.

As life progressed and technology came into play, now we have to think about it. I like to call it purposeful movement. But I don't want you to think too hard about it.

As an exercise physiologist, I have an extremely organic take on exercise. It's movement. That's all it is. We all just got up and did a little shimmy and we felt a little better, right? It can be that simple. Now, we need to do a little bit more, but I hope I at least whetted your whistle a little bit.

How does exercise reduce the risk of cancer?

Not only does exercise help us maintain a healthier weight, but it has a number of biological effects on the body. Exercise:

  • Lowers the levels of hormones like insulin and estrogen. That's something that Shayna was talking about with foods. These are things we need to watch so, you want to burn them off through exercise.

  • Reduces growth factors. Certain growth factors have been associated with cancer development and progression. Exercise helps reduce that.

  • Helps to prevent obesity. This decreases the harmful effects of obesity, particularly the development of insulin resistance.

  • Reduces inflammation. We can reduce inflammation through diet and exercise.  

  • Improves our immune system function. This helps your body fight illness and disease.

  • Improves digestion. Exercise reduces the amount of time it takes for food to travel through the digestive system, which decreases gastrointestinal tract exposure to potential carcinogens. You know, you get to moving and everything gets to moving.

How much should you exercise?

We want you to move at the very least 150 minutes a week. That’s moving for 30 minutes per day, five days a week.

With these 150 minutes per week, they need to be in greater than 10-minute increments to maximize your health benefits for cancer prevention. So, I am all about getting up and walking to the water fountain during work. You definitely want to stand more, but to really benefit from movement, you want to exercise in increments of more than 10 minutes.

Moderate to vigorous exercise

This is another thing about the 150 minutes. To maximize those benefits, we want this exercise to be moderate to vigorous.

We’re not going to overcomplicate this. You do not need to get a watch that's going measure your heart rate.

What is moderate to vigorous exercise? I like to use the talk-sing test. If you can talk when you walk, you're doing great, but if you can sing while you're exercising, you might not be exercising at a moderate to vigorous rate.

Every day is different

We do this a lot with our breast cancer survivors in our PINK at Piedmont program. They might come in one day and they might walk on the treadmill and they're feeling great. They’re walking hard and they're working their moderate to vigorous range and that's amazing.

Then they might come in and they might not feel good and they might be like, "You know what, I don't even know if I can move today." And we say, "You know what? Let's just get you on a bike and you pedal because today, that's your moderate to vigorous."

It's what you feel. It's how you feel. That is so valuable. We know ourselves so well. Even if you are not feeling up to movement, if you can move, you move because that's your moderate to vigorous for that day and you get out there and you do that because that is going to benefit you.

For kids, the guidelines recommend at least an hour of exercise a day. 

Is exercise beneficial for cancer survivors?

Yes, of course it is. So how does it benefit? It helps manage and maintain a healthy weight. It also offers improvements to quality of life, body image, self-esteem, emotional well-being, sexuality, sleep and social functioning. It helps with anxiety. It helps with fatigue. It helps with pain, believe it or not.

“No pain, no gain.” As degreed and certified exercise physiologists, that's not a part of our Bible.

It also reduces depression. Paige Jones just posted our Facebook post and it says, "Do you want free drugs?" And then, there's a picture and it says, "Exercise is the most under-prescribed drug for depression. Let's take some exercise and feel a little bit better.”

Exercise improves the physical function, the social function and the overall mental health of a person.

Exercise for survivors can prevent recurrence. It can prevent progression. It can increase survival. It's linked to better cancer-specific outcomes.

One study found that women who had breast cancer and who engaged in recreational physical activity roughly equivalent to walking at an average pace of 2 to 2.9 miles per hour for one hour per week, had a 35 percent to 49 percent lower risk of death from breast cancer compared with women who engaged in less physical activity.

This is the foundation of our PINK at Piedmont program, a comprehensive program for women who are eight weeks out of surgery, treatment or therapy relating to breast cancer.

These women move and learn about healthy eating. They're given emotional support and wellness coaching. At Piedmont, we take exercise for survivorship very, very seriously. We have degreed and certified staff to safely and comfortably exercise everyone.

I want you to use your power moves to release those feel-good hormones, those endorphins and relish in that feeling of healthy accomplishment.

Check out additional health and wellness tips from Living Better experts.

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