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We’ve long known that exercise can prevent and treat heart disease, among other chronic conditions. Now, an international team of researchers and practitioners is suggesting that cancer is on that list as well.

The American College of Sports Medicine convened the panel, which included representatives from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and 15 other organizations. Experts reviewed the latest research and concluded in a paper, published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, that an “exercise prescription” could lower the risk of developing colon, breast, endometrial, kidney, bladder, esophageal, and stomach cancers.

Regular workouts, they noted, may also improve a patient’s quality of life during and following treatment and specifically may boost survival rates among those diagnosed with breast, prostate, or colon cancer.

Cancer experts have long under­stood the role exercise plays in preventing obesity, regulating hormone levels, and improving digestion — all factors that can con­tribute to the disease’s ­development. The report, however, marks the first time respected public-health organizations have come together to promote an exercise-based prevention and treatment protocol for clinicians. (For info on the Moving Through Cancer initiative.)

As a guideline, researchers recommend 30 minutes of moderately intense aerobic workouts three times a week combined with 20 to 30 minutes of strength training twice a week.

Practitioners could also customize exercise prescriptions based on a patient’s diagnosis, symptoms, and phase of treatment, says panel cochair Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, MPH, a professor of public-health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine.

“Through our research, we’ve reached a point where we can give specific FITT exercise prescriptions — which means frequency, intensity, time, and type — for specific outcomes, like quality of life, fatigue, pain, and others,” explains Schmitz. “For example, if we’re seeing a patient with head-and-neck cancer who has a specific set of symptoms, we could give them an exercise prescription personalized to them.”

The call for patients to get moving is a sharp departure from traditional cancer-treatment protocols, which typically focus on rest and recovery. The new protocol is backed by more than a thousand randomized, controlled trials in the past two decades and explains the gradual rise of exercise oncology during the same period.

Still, Schmitz admits she and her colleagues face a daunting task as they seek to convince practitioners — and 43 million cancer patients worldwide — that a regular workout regimen may be an effective way to conquer the disease.

“Currently, an average person on the street will know that exercise is good for preventing and treating heart disease but not for melanoma,” she notes. “We want to change that. When researchers in the 1950s built an evidence base for exercise and heart disease, there was a shift in public knowledge about that connection. It’s now time for that same thing to happen with exercise and cancer.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Experience LifeLife Time’s whole-life health and fitness magazine. 

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