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Fight obesity-related cancers with exercise

Fight obesity-related cancers with exercise

Physical activities cut the risk of obesity-related cancers, say experts. Regular exercise also reduce the recurrence of some types of cancer
Several observational studies have shown that being physically active can reduce the risk of some types of cancer.
Along with the medications, procedures and therapies, physical activities help in the fight against cancer, both in the treatment process and in managing pain.

Cancer has become alarmingly common. Statistics reveal the bleak picture – it is the second leading cause of death globally, just behind cardiovascular diseases. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, around 1.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer every year and about 6 lakh people die of the disease. The numbers are on the rise. Exercise can hold the secret to curbing this menace.

Cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in any tissue or organ in the body. There are many kinds of cancer differentiated by the organ or body part it affects – bladder cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, colorectal cancer, gynecologic cancer, prostate cancer, etc. Depending on the type, the causes and diagnosis, the treatment methods vary.

Obesity and cancer

Obesity is the underlying cause of many health conditions today. There are cancers which are linked with excessive weight, the common ones being breast cancer, colon cancer and endometrial cancer.

Something as basic as being physically active daily by including an exercise routine can be vital in reducing the risk of some cancers. Several observational studies have shed light on this.

Dr Dayananda Srinivasan, a surgical oncologist and founder of Diya Cancer Care, Bengaluru (India), connects unhealthy food habits with the rise in cancer.

“Of late, we have seen patients who are overweight for their age, probably because of poor lifestyle habits and a lot of junk food and fast-food culture,” says Dr Srinivasan. “Simultaneously, we have also noticed that there is an increase in incidents of cancer being detected.”

Dr Soumya Somasekar, the surgical oncologist at Bengaluru’s Ramaiah Hospitals, concurs and adds that lack of physical activity (exercise) increases the risk manifold.

“More than 250 studies have shown that there is sufficient evidence to link lack of physical activity to increased risk for at least three different types of cancer,” says Dr Somasekar.

“It is hypothesised that one of the mechanisms by which physical activity may reduce cancer risk is through the regulation of body fat content and obesity-related mechanisms like low-grade inflammation, increased insulin levels and metabolic hormones,” elaborates Dr Somasekar. “In addition to obesity and lack of physical activity, sedentary lifestyles like sitting and lying with screen-based activities such as television watching, screen time spent on smartphone and computer usage are associated with 20 per cent increase in cancer risk, especially colon, breast and endometrial or uterine cancers.”

Exercise and cancer survivors

The struggle people endure while fighting cancer varies with condition and stage. Pain is a common variable though. Along with the medications, therapies, and treatment, physical activities help, both in the treatment process and to manage pain.

Dr Anil Kamath, a senior consultant and surgical oncologist at Apollo Hospitals, Bengaluru, emphasises that major procedures require the patients to be in good physical condition. Those who exercise regularly will have a good reserve capacity for the lung and heart. It helps them to tolerate treatment procedures better. Also, during chemotherapy, most patients lose weight, but some of them reduce their activity and start gaining weight.

“Physical activity is known to reduce the chances of cancer recurrence, especially breast cancer,” adds Dr Kamath. “If the person starts gaining excess weight and reduces physical activity, the chances of cancer coming back will increase. So, physical activity is required during the whole process including pre-treatment and post-treatment. Even in those patients who have advanced cancer with no treatment, if they have regular physical activity, they are known to survive much longer.”

Dr Srinivasan says moderate physical activity ensures better treatment outcomes. “When we treat cancer, along with that we tell a few lifestyle modifications so that the risk for getting malignancy or the treatment outcome becomes better with physical activities,” he says. “Usually, we tell them at least 30 minutes of brisk exercise five days a week would be ideal for them.”

Hope against breast cancer

Breast cancer is the second most fatal cancer in women. Dr Somasekar says higher levels of oestrogen in the body are one of the causes.

“Oestrogen is a potential carcinogen, evident from many studies,” explains Dr Somasekar. “The longer or higher levels a woman is exposed to oestrogen, the greater is her risk of getting breast or endometrial cancer. So early menarche, late menopause, no children, no breastfeeding, and hormone replacement therapy – all increase the risk of oestrogen exposure during a woman’s lifetime. The exact mechanism of how oestrogen helps in the formation of cancer is poorly understood, but it causes rapid growth and progression of cancer through the oestrogen receptors present in cancer cells.”

There is a correlation between body fat and the amount of oestrogen produced in the body.

“As the body fat increases, fat also contributes to some amount of oestrogen,” says Dr Kamath. “So, the more the body fat is, the more oestrogen will be there and indirectly it leads to pro-carcinogenic effects on the breast.”

Carrying out physical activities or exercise on a regular basis, the excess fat gets reduced. This reduces the oestrogen levels in the body, reducing the risk of breast cancer. Of course, the effects of physical activities on carcinogenesis (normal cells turning cancerous) depend on several factors like age, gender, and adiposity (higher body fat content), in addition to physical activity-specific factors like the type of activity, duration, frequency and intensity.

So, physical activity has a positive impact on fighting or warding off cancer. Dr. Kamath stresses that “if cancer patients do physical activity, it helps their psychological health and not just physical health. Psychologically, they will start feeling much better. Parallel benefits will also be there.”


  • Physical activity or exercise can reduce the risk of obesity-related cancers like breast, colon and endometrial cancer.
  • Being physically fit helps people who fight cancer to cope with surgeries, therapies, and other treatments better.
  • It reduces the chance of cancer recurrence, especially breast cancer.
  • Physical activity also improves the psychological health of people fighting cancer.

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