Foothill Fitness Challenge: Controlling cancer risk with exercise

September 7, 2013 | by Nicole White

Exercise: We all know we should do it, not enough of us do. Many of us take steps in the right direction, purchasing gym memberships we never use or buying exercise equipment that collects dust.

Meanwhile, science proves again and again that exercise doesn’t just help us look better, it also helps control our risk of serious diseases, including cancer. Nearly half of all men and more than a third of all women will have cancer during their lifetimes, according to the American Cancer Society. One way that people of any size or fitness level can reduce their cancer risk is to exercise.

Sharing this message is one of the motivating factors behind City of Hope’s Foothill Fitness Challenge: a healthy competition between neighboring cities to encourage residents to set and achieve personal health goals that will reduce their risk of cancer, diabetes and other diseases – and lead to healthier lives.

“It has been established that regular exercise (about three to four hours per week) can lower the risk of colon cancer and, for women, the risk of breast cancer,” said Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D. , professor and director of the Division of Cancer Etiology at City of Hope, who published her first paper linking physical activity to lower cancer risk nearly 20 years ago. “By participating in the Foothill Fitness Challenge, and starting to walk for exercise every day, it is possible that you will lower your risk of cancer or extend the time before it develops.”


Study after study has backed up Bernstein’s findings, linking increased physical activity to reduced risk of breast, colon, uterine and advanced prostate cancer. Excess weight, on the other hand, has been  linked to an increased risk of cancer, including breast cancer, colon and rectum cancer, endometrial cancer, kidney cancer, esophageal cancer and pancreatic cancer.

Six-pack abs and elite athletic ability, however, are not a requisite for lowering cancer risk.

Keep it simple.  Bernstein recommends a 45-minute walk at least five days a week. As stamina increases, she says, walkers should boost their speed until they’re walking two miles in that time frame. On a treadmill, they should shoot for a rate of 3.2 miles per hour.

Shorter walks, done more frequently, can also be beneficial. The American Cancer Society recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week, preferably spread throughout the week.  Don’t deny your body the benefits of exercise just because you don’t have a large block of time or can’t find time for a formal gym workout. Keeping it simple is OK.

“It is easy – but it takes determination to get out there and take that walk those five days each week,” Bernstein said.

Exercise benefits all. Exercise is beneficial even to those who are not in peak physical condition, or who need to work up to a daily exercise routine.

Physical activity can be beneficial to all – even those who are overweight, Bernstein’s research has found. For some people, even 30 minutes a week made a difference.

Overweight people who exercised at an intermediate level – moderate or strenuous activity 30 minutes to three hours each week – reduced their risk of cancer death 48 percent. Those who exercised at a high level – more than three hours a week of moderate or strenuous activity – dropped their risk by 59 percent.

Redefine “exercise.” Exercise can happen at home, in your yard, on city trails and bike paths. For some people, a workout might be mowing the lawn or a round of golf. A fun and vigorous soccer game with friends can be as much of a workout as circuit weight training.

Public pools, parks and recreation classes often offer free or low-cost options for fun physical activity. As long as the activity is challenging, but still do-able, it counts as exercise. “Work hard enough to be huffing and puffing, and a little out of breath,” Bernstein says.

Be committed and accountable. One of the lessons learned in the California Teachers Study, a study of 133,479 current and former public school teachers and administrators, is that the benefits of exercise add up over time. It’s never too late for a permanent commitment.

Support helps. A growing body of research shows that even small amounts of social support – either from friends or from more formal programs – can help boost physical activity. A 2010 Stanford study showed that occasional phone call reminders led to  a 78 percent jump in the number of minutes participants exercised. However, even the control group saw an increase of 28 percent – because, study leaders surmised, they were motivated by knowing they would have to report back on what they’d done.

The Foothill Fitness Challenge will encourage similar accountability by organizing participants into city teams. Those teams, designed to foster a healthy spirit of competition, will ultimately determine which city has been most effective at improving fitness. Free health screenings – including weight and blood pressure – will be offered at the beginning and end of the challenge to provide real accountability to participants.

Go ahead. Get moving. It will benefit not just you, but your team.

In the video above, Leslie Bernstein, Ph.D., explains how to reduce cancer risk by taking charge of the factors you can control, such as exercise.

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