This article initially ran Nov. 12 as a blog post on the American Institute for Cancer Research website. It has been edited slightly and is being republished with permission from AICR.
On Nov. 12, the U.S. government did something good for our health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, gave us clear guidelines for the amount and types of physical activity to reduce the risk for common diseases, and to improve health for people with chronic diseases.
The guidelines state that being physically active is one of the most important things that people can do to improve their health. Health benefits start immediately after exercising, and even short periods of physical activity are beneficial. The government goes on to state that almost everyone can benefit from physical activity: women and men of all races and ethnicities, people of all ages, pregnant and postpartum women, and individuals with disabilities or chronic diseases.
HHS led the effort to develop these guidelines, which apply to all Americans. The government first convened a group of experts in physical activity and health — the Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. I was honored to serve on that committee. One of the jobs of the committee was to review the science on the role that physical activity might have in reducing the risk for various cancers and in improving survival in individuals who have cancer. HHS used the Committee’s findings to develop these new guidelines.
The guidelines state that individuals who engage in regular physical activity have a lower risk of cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung and stomach. Any amount of activity is beneficial in reducing risk, but the protection is greater with more time spent in physical activity on a regular basis.
The guidelines recommend that cancer survivors engage in regular physical activity for its many health benefits. For adults with breast, colorectal or prostate cancer, greater amounts of physical activity were associated with lower risk of dying from their cancer. For some cancer survivors, regular physical activity may reduce the risk of dying from any cause. Since physical activity can also improve quality of life, fitness, and physical function in cancer survivors, as well as reduce fatigue and some adverse effects of cancer treatment, all cancer survivors should be as active as they are able. The government recommends that individuals with cancer consult with their doctor or an exercise professional to determine what is the best type and level of physical activity for them.
Guidelines for children, teenagers, older adults, pregnant and postpartum women, adults with chronic health conditions, and adults with disabilities are also provided.
The guidelines provide recommendations on how to incorporate physical activity into your lifestyle. For some people, getting help from others can help — friends, family or exercise professionals. For others, technology might be key, such as step counters or exercise monitors, or text messages from professionals to help with behavior change. For cancer survivors, resources may be available through your hospital, medical center, or community for special exercise opportunities. Guidance for communities and institutions is also provided in the guidelines because improving access to physical activity opportunities can help everyone.
Dr. Anne McTiernan is a member of the Public Health Sciences Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and is the author of a highly acclaimed memoir, "Starved: A Nutrition Doctor’s Journey from Empty to Full." View all of McTiernan's AICR blog posts.