Exercise is a magical prescription. It has many positive qualities; it reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, increases flexibility, aids balance and coordination, improves sleep, increases muscle strength, improves mood, and offers a feeling of well being. Scientific evidence shows that physical activity may also reduce the risk of several types of cancer, including breast and colon cancers. Physical activity decreases the exposure of breast tissue to circulating estrogen. It also helps in preventing diabetes, which is associated with an increased risk of various cancers, by improving energy metabolism and reducing circulating concentrations of insulin. Regular physical exercise helps in maintaining a healthy body weight. Exercise offers great benefits without side effects. Clinical trials demonstrated that exercise provides the same or greater benefit than drugs. In addition to cancer and diabetes, exercise reduces the risk of other chronic diseases such as osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, and hypertension.

Of the more than 500,000 cancer-related deaths in the United States, the American Cancer Society (ACS) states that one-third can be attributed to diet and physical activity habits. Another third is due to cigarette smoking.

The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges the importance of exercise and physical activity to reduce the risk of cancer. I had the pleasure of representing the United States at the WHO conference, “Aging, Physical Activity, and Sports,” in Heidelberg, Germany. Representatives from around the world discussed the importance of exercise and well being.

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Patients should be encouraged to start an exercise program and follow it consistently. Our bodies were meant to move. All of us should find a fun physical activity, and be outside and enjoy some fresh air and sunshine at the same time. Exposure to sunshine also provides an extra dose of vitamin D. Studies indicate that many people have low vitamin D levels. The importance of vitamin D will be discussed in another column.

Most people can safely start a moderate exercise program without physician consent; however, older persons and those with chronic illness or high cardiovascular risks should consult with their doctor before starting a vigorous exercise program. It is never too late to get started. All exercise programs should begin with a warm up that includes slow, easy stretches to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injuries. One should start slow and increase the activity, intensity, and duration gradually. Adults should engage in 30 minutes or more of moderate activity on 5 or more days of the week. Forty-five minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous activity on 5 or more days per week may lead to a reduced risk of breast and colon cancer.

Clinical trials and animal and epidemiologic studies have shown that overweight and obesity are associated with increased risk for cancers. Balancing energy intake (food consumption) with energy expenditure (exercise) is proven to be the best way to achieve a healthy body weight.

Fancy equipment is not needed to start an exercise program. Find an activity you enjoy doing and base your exercise routine on it. Often having a buddy to exercise with is helpful. Exercise routines can include walking; dancing; biking; skating; swimming; playing golf; canoeing; horseback riding; playing sports; enjoying a yoga, dance, or exercise class; mowing the lawn; gardening; or participating in many other movement activities.

Health clubs and fitness facilities offer many options. The YMCA and the Lance Armstrong Foundation offer classes specifically for cancer survivors. The Cancer Support Community (The Wellness Community and Gilda’s Club) also offers free classes for cancer patients. Many local hospitals and medical centers offer supportive movement programs. Healthy Steps/Lebed Method is a medically based therapeutic exercise program that is offered in more than 800 hospitals and medical centers in the United States and 14 other countries.

Remember our bodies were designed to move. Let’s get our bodies moving and keep them moving.

Linda McDonald lives in Sarasota, Florida. You can e-mail her with your thoughts and ideas at [email protected].