As a cancer prevention researcher and pragmatist, Anne McTiernan has no illusions about most folks' commitment to exercise. She understands that people want to know exactly what they have to do — and how little they need to do — to reap healthy rewards.
Thanks to McTiernan's work, some specific answers now exist about the role of exercise and weight loss in reducing the risk of cancer. As a researcher in Fred Hutch's Public Health Sciences Division she designs studies with the aim of reducing the 25 percent of cancers caused by excess weight and sedentary lifestyles.
"We have such an epidemic of obesity and lack of exercise, which is one reason I've gravitated to exercise and weight control," McTiernan said. "It's an area of study that could have a significant impact."
McTiernan's group is the first to specifically look at the effects increased physical activity and weight loss have on reducing the chance of getting cancer. Such risk reduction has been difficult to quantify in the past, but McTiernan has been able to definitely gauge impacts by measuring so-called biomarkers in research participants.
Among her most important findings, overweight post-menopausal women who exercised for 45 minutes five days a week, whittled away unhealthy belly fat and lowered their estrogen and testosterone levels, hormones that in excess can contribute to cancer. Another study showed that exercise six days a week brought both sexes significant fat loss and a lowered risk of colon cancer in men.
McTiernan's groundbreaking work has put Fred Hutch at the forefront of the field, earning her an invitation to join a federal scientific advisory committee to develop the nation's first guidelines to focus on physical activity-and the first to recognize the impact of exercise on cancer-risk reduction.
"Nothing is guaranteed, but exercise and weight control are like wearing a seat belt," McTiernan said. "It reduces your risk."