The exercise that could reduce the risk of metastasis by 72%

      We all know that exercise is good, but new research shows just how good regular exercise can be for our health.

      A study from Tel Aviv University, published in Cancer Research, is the first to investigate the impact of exercise on internal organs where metastases (secondary cancerous growths) often develop, such as the lungs, liver and lymph nodes. And what the researchers found was truly remarkable: aerobic exercise can reduce the risk of metastatic cancer by 72%.

      In a press release, lead researchers Dr. Carmit Levy and Dr. Ytach Gepner say these findings add new insight, showing that high-intensity aerobic exercise, which gets its energy from sugar, can reduce the risk of metastatic cancer by up to 72%. “If until now the general message to the public has been ‘be active, be healthy,'” they say, “now we can explain how aerobic activity can maximize the prevention of the most aggressive and metastatic cancers.”

      The study included both mice and humans: the mice were trained under a strict exercise regimen, and the healthy human volunteers were examined before and after running.

      Data were also obtained from an epidemiological study in which 3,000 people were followed for about 20 years; during that time, 243 new cases of cancer were registered. The researchers found that there was 72% less metastatic cancer in participants who reported doing regular high-intensity physical exercise, compared with those who did not.

      The mice showed a similar result, allowing the researchers to use the animal model to better understand what might be leading to the reduction in cancer. They found that aerobic activity significantly reduced the development of metastatic tumors in the mice’s lymph nodes, lungs, and liver. The researchers hypothesized that, in both humans and model animals, this result is related to exercise-induced increased use of glucose for fuel.

      “By examining the cells of these organs, we found an increase in the number of glucose receptors during high-intensity aerobic activity, which increases glucose consumption and turns the organs into efficient energy-consuming machines, much like muscles,” Levy says in the news release.

      According to the researchers, this occurs because the organs must compete for sugar resources with the muscles, which are known to burn large amounts of glucose during physical exercise. As a result, there is less glucose – and therefore energy – available for the cancer to metastasize, or grow and spread.

      In addition to these encouraging results, Levy explains that “when a person exercises regularly, this condition becomes permanent: internal organ tissues change and become similar to muscle tissue.” We all know that sport and physical exercise are good for our health. This particular study, however, looks at internal organs, and found that exercise changes the entire body, so that cancer can’t spread, and the primary tumor shrinks as well, Levy says.

      What is metastatic cancer?

      Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread to somewhere other than the primary location of the cancer, says Carolina Gutierreza cancer rehabilitation specialist with the McGovern School of Medicine at UTHealth Houston and an attending physician at TIRR Memorial Hermann.

      How does exercise affect the internal organs where metastases often develop?

      We knew from previous observational studies that exercise has a very important positive impact that can range from lowering the risk of recurrence to lowering the risk of certain cancers, but we didn’t really understand how it works, says Dr. Marlene Meyersa medical oncologist at NYU Langone Perlmutter Cancer Center.

      Dr. Meyers explains that this study was actually intended to look at what happens in mice. “Essentially, what she showed was that mice that exercised at high intensity had increased glucose or sugar receptors in these organs.” She notes that the researchers’ feeling is that this increase in receptors competes with glucose (sugar) that might go to cancer cells, giving them the energy to spread.

      How does exercise reduce the risk of cancer?

      There are many reasons why exercise can reduce cancer risk, says Dr. Gutierrez. “Exercise helps maintain a healthy weight and body composition, reduces fat, helps glucose levels and control high blood pressure. It also helps reduce the risk of diabetes, insulin resistance, and in turn , reduces a person’s overall risk of cancer.”

      However, when it comes to how high-intensity exercise in particular affects cancer risk, the science is less clear. “We know that any exercise can lower the risk of recurrence in some types of cancer, so it’s not clear specifically whether high-intensity makes as big a difference compared to regular exercise, or how long to maintain high-intensity exercise or how often,” says Dr. Meyers.

      In this study, the researchers defined high-intensity exercise as one in which the heart rate is 80 to 85% of maximum pulse rate, says Dr. Meyers. Because of these findings, she says, “high-intensity exercise may be the type of exercise that can actually increase glucose receptors.” In the end, Dr. Meyers says these findings support what we know about exercise, “but it doesn’t say clearly what we should recommend to humans.”

      The final result

      Exercise is good for you, says Dr. Gutiérrez. “It will help you with your general health and reduce the risk of not only cancer but metastasis.”

      However, Dr. Meyers cautions that we need to take these promising findings with a grain of salt. “When we look at these retrospective studies, we go by what people report… There are many other factors that go into reducing risk, whether it’s exercise alone, exercise and nutrition, where you live, history relatives,” he explains.

      Future studies need to be more randomized, especially in our survivor populations, says Dr. Meyers.

      Also, remember that exercise is not a substitute for medical care or cancer screening, and it’s not an end-all, says Dr. Meyers. “Even professional athletes get cancer,” so while exercise can do a lot of good, there’s still no cure for cancer.

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