12 Ways Exercise Helps You Fight Colon Cancer

by Jennifer Tzeses Health Writer

There are so many reasons to exercise: It reduces your risk of heart disease, helps your body manage blood sugar and insulin, boosts mood, and gives you improved sleep—for starters! But for the roughly 1.4 million people who have colon cancer, exercise has some extra-special superpowers. “It reduces obesity, inflammation, and oxidative stress within the body,” says gastroenterologist Leon S. Maratchi, M.D. of Gastro Health in Hollywood, FL. Plus, researchers believe physical activity may prevent 15% of colon cancers, he says.

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The Healthier You Are, the Better Your Treatment Options

Exercise helps you stay physically fit and keep your weight healthy, which is ideal for everyday life, but even more important when you’re battling colon cancer. “When we’re trying to treat and ideally cure a patient’s colon cancer, the more physically fit and healthy that person is, the more likely they’ll withstand therapy—and the more options they have to be treated,” says John Kisiel, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

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A Slimmer Midsection Makes Surgery Easier

Abdominal fat goes deeper than the skin; it can live within the abdomen, wrapped around organs, Dr. Kisiel says. This can be especially problematic for patients undergoing colon cancer surgery. With a thicker abdominal wall, it’s harder for doctors to get in with smaller instruments, he says. Before you try crunching your way to flat abs, though, know that, as any fitness pro will tell you, spot training doesn’t work. Instead, get leaner by doing total-body exercises you love—play tennis, go for long walks, even garden.

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Being Fit Helps You Heal Faster

Once surgery’s over, the benefits of being in good shape continue. “Patients who are overweight are more likely to have post-surgical complications,” Dr. Kisiel says. “Obesity causes a pro-inflammatory state, which can impair the immune system and cause blood clots and poor wound healing,” he says. Another advantage: “A patient who is in better shape is potentially a better candidate for laparoscopic surgery as opposed to an open operation, which takes longer to recover from,” Dr. Kisiel says.

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Short Sessions May Beat Back Cancer

If you’re the type who prefers intense bursts of exercise as opposed to long-haul workouts, you’re in luck: High intensity interval training (HIIT), where you alternate short bouts of go-all-out exercise with low-intensity exercise or rest periods, may have benefits that go beyond the merits of a short sweat session. A 2019 study in The Journal of Physiology found that HIIT increased inflammation immediately after exercise, which is thought to be involved in reducing the number of cancer cells.

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Exercise Helps Fight Fatigue

Cancer-related fatigue is no sleepy little symptom: It affects up to 80% of cancer patients. But according to a 2018 study in BMC Medicine, exercising during chemotherapy can help boost energy levels and fight off fatigue. During the study, colon (and breast) cancer patients were put on an 18-week exercise program of aerobics and strength training. The results were immediate and long-term: Patients showed less fatigue even up to four years later.

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All Exercise Is Good Exercise

Research shows that long-term colorectal cancer survivors who were physically active have a better quality of life than those who were not active. But what’s really surprising is, it doesn’t matter how hard you’re working out: Both light-to-moderate exercise (activities performed easily while talking), and vigorous physical activity (those that increase your heart rate and make you breathe more heavily) have been shown to reduce pain, insomnia, and fatigue, common post-colon cancer symptoms that can disrupt daily life.

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It Doesn’t Matter What Stage the Cancer Is

According to a 2019 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, over the course of six years, patients with metastatic (stage 4) colorectal cancer who engaged in moderate daily exercise while undergoing chemotherapy tended to have delayed progression of their disease and fewer severe side effects from treatment. This doesn’t mean you have to run marathons, either. Even low-intensity exercise, such as walking four or more hours a week, made a difference: It was associated with a nearly 20% reduction in cancer progression or death.

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Prevention Power

So let’s talk about how exercise could help you avoid colon cancer in the first place: In those who aren’t active, harmful bacteria, which can lead to cancer, has more time to hang out in our system, Dr. Maratchi says. “An active lifestyle increases colonic transit time (the time it takes for food to travel through the colon), reducing the potential for carcinogens in our food and the environment to interact with the lining of the large intestine.”

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More on Prevention

Another reason to get moving: In a meta-analysis of 126 studies, researchers found those who exercised had a 19% lower risk of colon cancer than those who didn’t. “Physical activity has proven to reduce the levels of inflammatory molecules in the body and reduce the risk for colon cancer and other cancers,” Dr. Maratchi says. To reap the most benefits from your workout, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150-300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 to 100 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or an equivalent combo. You pick!

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It Boosts Your Mood

We know that exercise is important for mood maintenance (stress release, anyone?), but for those undergoing treatment for colon cancer, it's an especially important part of their mental and spiritual wellbeing, Dr. Kisiel says. Because exercise can make you feel better overall, you may be more likely to stay active, maintain relationships with family and friends, and be social. All of this can help give you more strength to deal with cancer.

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It’s Never Too Late to Start

How active you were as a kid matters, but don’t worry—starting now counts, too! One study found that at least an hour of physical activity per day from age 12 to 22 reduced the risk of the polyps that are considered a precursor to colorectal cancer by 7%. And for those who maintained that activity streak into adulthood, the risk was reduced by 24%. But for those of us just strapping on our sneakers now, there’s also good news: Physical activity that started in adulthood reduced the risk by 9%.

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It Could Add Years to Your Life

If all of these reasons haven’t convinced you to get off the couch yet, maybe this one will: Engaging in physical activity post-colon cancer diagnosis has helped people live longer, Dr. Maratchi says. “In patients with early-stage colon cancer patients, who had high levels of physical activity after their diagnosis, mortality was decreased by 42%,” he says. “Certain molecules that allow cancer cells to spread throughout the body in patients with colon cancer have been shown to decrease with physical activity.” So get up off that chair and get a move on!

Jennifer Tzeses
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer Tzeses

Jennifer Tzeses is a writer and content strategist specializing in health, beauty, psychology and lifestyle. She's written for The Wall Street Journal, Mind Body Green, CNN, Architectural Digest, Barron's, Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, Psycom, Elle, Marie Claire, and more. Follow her on Instagram @jtzeses.