Get in shape to fight off cancer: Learn how to reset your own body clock

Taking regular exercise is one of the most important ways of staying healthy and avoiding illness — and the good news is you don’t have to go mad in Lycra to see significant results.

No special equipment is needed, either. A well-fitting pair of trainers or walking shoes is all you need to make a start on getting fitter and cutting your risk of serious diseases, cancer included.

As you’d expect, this is all based on solid science.

Several scientific reviews have estimated that at least 15 per cent of all breast cancers and 40 per cent of bowel cancers could have been prevented by regular exercise.

Taking regular exercise is one of the most important ways of staying healthy and avoiding illness ¿ and the good news is you don¿t have to go mad in Lycra to see significant results (stock image)

Taking regular exercise is one of the most important ways of staying healthy and avoiding illness — and the good news is you don’t have to go mad in Lycra to see significant results (stock image)

And you’re 30-40 per cent less likely to relapse after treatment for a primary cancer if you exercise moderately for three hours a week, found a large review of the world’s most prestigious studies by the National Cancer Institute in the U.S.

There’s also evidence that exercise can slow the progression of ongoing cancers as well as helping you to cope better with the toxicities of treatment.

And the other good news is it’s never too late to make a real difference, even if you haven’t exercised for a while.

As an oncologist who’s spent most of my professional life studying the causes and consequences of cancer, I’m convinced we are not destined to develop disease because of the genes we inherit.

In fact, I believe that the way we live our lives is far more important.

It is why I wrote my latest book, How To Live. I wanted to share my lifetime’s work on taking control of your health and cutting your risk of cancer by making simple changes to the food you eat and the way you live.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we abandon traditional medicine — which saves lives every day. I’ve seen too many referrals of patients who’ve refused potentially successful treatments because they opted to go it alone with lifestyle strategies, with tragic results.

Several scientific reviews have estimated that at least 15 per cent of all breast cancers and 40 per cent of bowel cancers could have been prevented by regular exercise (stock image)

Several scientific reviews have estimated that at least 15 per cent of all breast cancers and 40 per cent of bowel cancers could have been prevented by regular exercise (stock image)

But the more patients I listen to and research I do, it’s clear that the little decisions made day in day out can make the difference between developing cancer or not. They can also have a profound effect on how well your body fights back if you do get it.

So it might not matter if you don’t go out for a long walk today — but it’s when days turn into weeks and months, that you store up trouble. That is why, in the last of this series to help you reduce your cancer risk, I’ve chosen to focus on living a more active life, a vital step in protecting against disease of all sorts.

Before we get started I need to warn you exactly how dangerous it is to sit down for long periods of time on a regular basis.

A 2011 study found that people who spent most of their working lives sitting at a desk increased their risk of bowel cancer by a third compared to people with physically active jobs — even if they still went to the gym once or twice a week.

And I’m afraid it’s bad news for couch potatoes, too.

A study that looked at the effects of watching TV, which followed 8,800 adults over six years, found that for every extra hour of daily television viewing, there was an increased risk of dying early from any cause by 11 per cent; for cardiovascular diseases the increased risk was 18 per cent and for cancer 9 per cent.

But every little bit really does help — taking a break from your desk every hour, walking to the shops instead of driving, going for a stroll after dinner in the evening.

... But don't overdo it!

For all the proven health benefits of exercise, I really must stress that it’s very important not to overdo it — particularly if you haven’t worked out for a while.

If your regime is too strenuous, you can end up with tissue damage and actually increase inflammation in the short term.

So it is important to embark on a training programme, preferably one that is supervised, that will build up your fitness gradually.

Build up your exercise levels sensibly, so your muscles, heart, lung and joints can repair between sessions. Your body will also gradually increase its levels of antioxidant enzymes (vital for repair and fighting disease).

This is particularly important for older people whose bodies adapt more slowly to these changes.

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And the benefits of being more active increase with the more that you do — this is still true for anyone who’s already been diagnosed with cancer.

One study, involving men with prostate cancer, found that those who walked for more than four hours a week had a better survival rate than those who walked for just two hours.

Yet research frequently shows how few of us exercise enough, particularly as we get older.

As part of a recent study conducted at Cambridge, we recorded the exercise levels of 400 elderly men with prostate cancer and were troubled to find only 4 per cent exercised at a moderate intensity for three hours a week (this is generally accepted by doctors as the level needed to start reducing the risk of chronic diseases, including cancer)

Some had genuine reasons, such as arthritis, but many had a misplaced fear that exercise would worsen symptoms.

This is simply not the case. Even if you start slowly because you haven’t exercised for a while, being more active can increase the production of hormones that make you feel happier, while improving sleep, skin tone, libido and mental activity plus slowing the biological clock embedded deep in our DNA.

You’ll not only cut your risk of cancer, or cancer returning but find that you are living a healthier and happier life, too.

HOW IT PROTECTS AGAINST DISEASE

Any form of exercise that raises your heartbeat can help lower cholesterol levels and improve blood pressure. It also helps you to maintain a healthy weight, build muscle and improve the supply of oxygen and nutrients to your body tissues.

If you exercise outside you’re also boosting your vitamin D levels from exposure to the sun (we know Vitamin D can slow the progression and growth of cancer).

Exercise also triggers more than 180 direct biochemical changes in your body, most of them beneficial, which can have important effects on the risk of cancer and other diseases. Research found regular exercise can lower IGF (the enzyme Insulin-like Growth Factor that can make cancer cells grow rapidly) and raise cure rates. Several randomised controlled trials have shown that exercise also improves insulin sensitivity and lowers blood sugar levels — which also lowers the risk of being overweight, another cancer risk factor.

DAMPENS DOWN THE BAD GUYS

Regular physical activity has a significant impact on whether or not ‘bad’ genes that cause disease are activated as we go through life.

This was neatly demonstrated in the GEMINAL study, a pilot trial involving men with low-risk prostate cancer in the U.S.

Scientists found that a set of genes capable of transforming normal cells into cancer cells were ‘damped down’ after an exercise and lifestyle programme. Genes that showed a marked response to exercise included those involved in DNA repair.

If you haven’t exercised for a while, don’t feel daunted. The key is to take it in stages and not overdo it. Once you begin to see the results, you will be motivated to continue. A walk before mealtimes is great for your circulation and digestion as well as weight control.

The benefits of being more active increase with the more that you do ¿ this is still true for anyone who¿s already been diagnosed with cancer, writes Professor Robert Thomas (pictured)

The benefits of being more active increase with the more that you do — this is still true for anyone who’s already been diagnosed with cancer, writes Professor Robert Thomas (pictured)

How exercise helps from Top to Toe 

From helping you to combat the threat of brittle bones, reducing anxiety or cutting your risk of cancer, regular exercise has far-reaching benefits for the health of your whole body as well as helping you to lose a spare tyre. Here are just a few of the major rewards you can hope to reap.

Head and Brain 

Research shows that being physically active improves mood, reduces anxiety levels and helps to fight depression, partly by releasing increased levels of the ‘feel-good’ hormones endorphins.

The exact mechanisms are not yet exactly understood but it’s also thought that activity provides a mental distraction, which can act a s a ‘circuit-breaker’ to negative thought patterns.

Regular exercise also increases levels of the chemical serotonin in your brain, boosting your mood and overall sense of wellbeing.

WHAT TO DO: Aerobic exercises such as running, cycling or dancing that increase your heart rate are particularly good for this.

Exercising outdoors is another mood-boosting bonus as research shows sunlight can reduce seasonal-associated depression and your body’s circadian rhythm — so try to exercise outdoors in daylight if possible.

From helping you to combat the threat of brittle bones, reducing anxiety or cutting your risk of cancer, regular exercise has far-reaching benefits for the health of your whole body as well as helping you to lose a spare tyre (stock image)

From helping you to combat the threat of brittle bones, reducing anxiety or cutting your risk of cancer, regular exercise has far-reaching benefits for the health of your whole body as well as helping you to lose a spare tyre (stock image)

Eyes and Face

Eyes are a muscle just like the rest of the body. With age, our ability to look up, in particular, diminishes so from time to time during each day, keep you head still and look up, then look left and right.

For menopausal women, one of the troublesome consequences of naturally falling levels of oestrogen and testosterone is that this causes an imbalance in the body’s cooling system.

This can lead to hot flushes, a sudden and unpleasant sensation of heat spreading across the face and chest that can range from a mild heat intolerance to prolific sweating throughout the day and night, disrupted sleep and sometimes even leading to fainting and exhaustion.

WHAT TO DO: Aerobic activities including brisk walking, swimming or cycling. Research shows that sedentary women who started a programme of brisk jogging or pedalling four or five times a week, experienced a 60 per cent reduction in the frequency of hot flushes, and also found improvements in other menopausal symptoms such as mood, weight gain and insomnia.

Bone

Bone is a constantly changing organ, continually remodelling itself in response to accidents, weight-bearing exercise or changes in your environment or diet.

It’s well known that bone density decreases with age, making brittle bones and falls a risk for older people.

Some medications, including steroids for asthma, phenytoin for epilepsy and hormones for breast cancer, can also increase the rate of bone loss .

So it’s sensible to do regular exercise if you’re taking these as studies show it will help maintain bone density.

WHAT TO DO: Weight-training is a good defence against bone loss, but the best type of exercise to prevent it is called High-intensity Resistance and Impact training (HiRIT).

Authoritative studies have shown HiRIT to have a significant impact on bone density (and physical strength) in the hips and back, with no increased risk of fractures. It is also safe; despite many participants having osteoporosis, the study found no fractures caused.

Studies have shown that yoga and Pilates significantly relieve joint pain and improve mobility (stock image)

Studies have shown that yoga and Pilates significantly relieve joint pain and improve mobility (stock image)

Knee and Hip

More than 8.5 million people in the UK are living with the discomfort and disability caused by arthritis, a debilitating condition that affects the hands, feet, spine, hips and knees in particular.

Arthritis is characterised by inflammation and damage to cartilage and bone in the joints, leading to pain, stiffness, swelling and deformity.

Certain drugs make arthritis worse, including statins for high cholesterol and hormonal drugs for prostate and breast cancer.

Being overweight, smoking and having a high-sugar diet can all contribute to making joint damage worse.

There is no cure for osteoarthritis, as it is very difficult to restore the cartilage once it has been destroyed.

WHAT TO DO: Exercise that involves stretching is the most effective way to slow its progress and help alleviate the swelling and pain.

The problem is that pain often gets temporarily worse at the start of exercise, giving the impression that it should be avoided. But it does wear off if you persist.

Studies have shown that yoga and Pilates significantly relieve joint pain and improve mobility.

Being overweight, smoking and having a high-sugar diet can all contribute to making joint damage worse (stock image)

Being overweight, smoking and having a high-sugar diet can all contribute to making joint damage worse (stock image)

Leg and Lung 

One leading cause of preventable death that people rarely talk about — venous thromboembolism (VTE) — a condition in which blood clots form within a vein.

These clots can break off and block the blood supply to the heart or lung. In the brain, it can be the cause of a fatal or disabling stroke. About half a million people in Europe die as a direct or indirect result of blood clots events every year — more than breast cancer, Aids and traffic accidents combined.

Although blood clots can form anywhere in the body, they are most common in the legs (deep vein thromboses which can lead to blocks in the blood supply to heart or lungs) and in the lungs (pulmonary embolism when a blood vessel in your lungs gets blocked causing chest pain and coughing up blood).

Both are medical emergencies that require immediate hospital treatment. You’re more at risk of spontaneous clots if you have a family history — but several lifestyle factors are also key.

These include smoking, being overweight and periods of prolonged immobility such as long car or plane journeys.

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The last two patients I saw with pulmonary embolism had both driven nine hours to Cornwall in heavy traffic.

Being active and moving regularly are therefore important ways you can cut your risk.

WHAT TO DO: Regular aerobic exercise, including brisk walking every day. Jogging, cycling, dance classes or interval training are all good ways to lower the risk of blood clots.

About half a million people in Europe die as a direct or indirect result of blood clots events every year ¿ more than breast cancer, Aids and traffic accidents combined (stock image)

About half a million people in Europe die as a direct or indirect result of blood clots events every year — more than breast cancer, Aids and traffic accidents combined (stock image)

Heart and Blood Pressure

Numerous trials show exercise improves high blood pressure and can reduce the need for medication. The main reason for this is that it makes your heart stronger. A stronger heart can pump more blood using less effort. If your heart can work less to pump, the tension in your artery walls decreases, lowering your blood pressure. Regular exercise also helps you maintain a healthy weight, another important way to control

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