Try This: How Exercise Helps Fight Cancer

Today, we’re summarizing the findings from a scientific paper that uncovers the mechanisms for why exercise is such a powerful tool, specifically in the fight against cancer.

Big shout out to Dr. Satchin Panda for bringing this study to my attention after seeing him share it on his Twitter page!

Let’s jump in!

Exercise helps combat insulin resistance, a key driver of metabolic dysfunction.

I recently sat down with cancer researcher Dr. Thomas Seyfried to discuss his radical and controversial approach to cancer, which he believes is largely driven by insulin resistance. Because insulin is a growth hormone, high fasting levels can cause cells to grow out of control.

How exercise helps: Movement increases our muscles’ demand for energy, to which they respond by becoming more insulin sensitive—in effect, acting like a sponge—so they can soak up glucose from the bloodstream, which provides an inherent blood sugar-balancing effect.

Our muscles also act as glucose reservoirs, storing glucose after meals to power movement. This is another benefit to having lean muscle that I’ve witnessed firsthand by collecting data from my continuous glucose monitor. Having lean muscle gives us the freedom to incorporate more carbs into our diet while maintaining insulin sensitivity and balanced blood sugar.

Exercise helps lower inflammation.

Inflammatory markers such as CRP, IL-6, and TNF-alpha are typically elevated in individuals with cancer, and high levels are linked to cancer promotion and progression.

How exercise helps: Regular exercise reduces levels of inflammatory cytokines and increases levels of antioxidant enzymes such as glutathione. According to the paper, exercise supports immune function by increasing natural killer cells and cancer-killing T cells and B cells.

Exercise helps lower high estrogen and androgen levels.

Estrogen is super important for reproductive and sexual health. However, excess estrogen and circulating estrogen metabolites can increase the risk of breast and endometrial cancer.

Additionally, androgens (the precursors to estrogen) and insulin levels tend to be higher in individuals with obesity. High androgen and insulin levels lead to increased aromatase activity, which is the enzyme that converts androgens to estrogen. The paper says that this combination of events is also linked to an increased risk for estrogen-dominant cancers.

How exercise helps: Exercise helps reduce excess estrogen and androgen levels, and one way it does this is by increasing globulin, a protein that binds to sex hormones and makes them unavailable to cells. Exercise also aids in fat loss and blood sugar balance, which further supports hormone balance.

Exercise secretes beneficial myokines.

Our muscles act as endocrine organs, meaning they secrete hormones! When worked, they secrete a special type of hormone called myokines that communicate with nearby tissues, creating cross-talk between our muscles and other organs.

How exercise helps: Myokines have positive metabolic and physiological effects, which research shows can inhibit cancer development and progression by directly inhibiting tumor cell growth or beneficially altering the environment (for us, not cancer!) that cancer cells need to grow by lowering insulin and inflammation and supporting immunity.

Exercise is a powerful tool in the fight against cancer. But how much and what type of exercise do we need to do to get these anticancer benefits?

Try This:

Here are the evidence-based recommendations for the minimal viable dose of exercise per week:

  1. At least 30 minutes of aerobic activity per day or 150 minutes per week. According to The American Institute for Cancer Research, moderate physical activity (a.k.a. anything that raises your heart rate, but you’re still able to talk) for 30 minutes a day, or at least 150 minutes a week (30 minutes X 5 days per week) is enough for anticancer benefits.Examples of moderate physical activity include going for a brisk walk, hiking, playing doubles tennis with friends, or biking on a flat road.
  2. Strength training at least twice a week. Not only is strength training awesome for building muscle and supporting longevity, but it’s also a powerful tool for optimizing metabolic health and body composition, which, in turn, can help fight cancer.Experts agree that strength training two-to-three times per week is the sweet spot for building and maintaining muscle and promoting longevity when combined with sufficient dietary protein. Check out this newsletter recap from my interview with metabolism and protein legend Dr. Don Layman for my nuanced stance on protein and cancer.

Making Movement Fun

So many people fall into the trap that exercise has to be a chore. We just need to make sure we’re choosing exercise we enjoy, and that’s sustainable.

I’m a big fan of Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s work. I had her on the podcast to talk about her book, The Joy of Movement, where she reframes our perception of exercise and how to cultivate a movement routine that suits you and brings you a sense of joy and flow.

In conclusion, I want to leave you with a quote from Dr. Peter Attia that’s incredibly fitting for today’s newsletter:

“Exercise might be the most potent ‘drug’ we have for extending the quality and perhaps quantity of our years of life.” – Peter Attia

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