Here’s a good reason to lace up your walking shoes every day: A regular exercise habit may help to lower your risk of certain types of cancer. A review of the medical literature shows regular physical activity, such as walking, may help decrease the risk of breast, colon, lung, endometrial, kidney and prostate cancer. Moreover, some research shows women who are physically active may lower their breast cancer risk by 25%.
Walking has also been shown to be beneficial for those who currently have cancer as well as those in remission. Patients who walk throughout their treatment regimens, and survivors who walk after completing treatments, may experience fewer short- and long-term side effects related to cancer treatment, and they may lose less muscle mass compared to physically inactive cancer patients.
Cancer patients undergoing treatment share similarities with astronauts in spaceflight, according to one study: Both groups experience stressors that can cause long-term changes like decreased muscle mass, lowered bone density and changes in heart function. The study authors suggested cancer patients could benefit from regular exercise like walking, which has been shown to be beneficial for astronauts. NASA’s rigorous countermeasures program helps astronauts fight the decrease in muscle mass associated with time spent in space. In contrast, cancer patients are often told to rest during treatment, which can contribute to decreases in muscle mass, so people could benefit from veering from the status quo.
Walking is associated with decreases in cancer risk for a number of reasons, according to Lisa Auster-Gussman, PhD, a researcher and postdoctoral fellow in the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “Exercise helps to regulate hormones like estrogen, which is associated with elevated breast cancer risk; it reduces chronic inflammation, increases immune function and improves insulin sensitivity, all of which lowers the risk of certain cancers.”
Walking regularly may also lead to weight loss, which is associated with a lowered risk of certain cancers. “Obesity is associated with increased risk of many cancers, including breast, colon, uterus, endocrine and others,” says Dr. Jorge Cortes, director of the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University.
Beyond preventing the loss of muscle mass and bone density, walking provides additional benefits to mental and physical health. “Walking has been shown to improve energy levels and reduce fatigue in cancer patients,” says Cortes. “It can also help with stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia and other symptoms commonly experienced by cancer patients.”
Walking is an ideal form of exercise for most cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy, immunotherapy or other treatments because it’s low-impact and easy. “Many patients prefer walking [because] it is not too strenuous,” says Dr. Joshua Mansour, a board-certified hematologist and oncologist with City of Hope Cancer Center and Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles. “Many hospitals will help motivate patients to even walk in the hospital while they are hospitalized by giving them medals or tokens when they have completed a certain number of laps around the floor or unit. Patients have found it to be fun. It helps get them out of bed and will, many times, give them a rush of endorphins and increase their mood.”
Cancer patients may also enjoy walking because they are able to decide how or when they exercise. “This can actually be really positive for people during treatment, when their body generally feels really out of their control,” says Auster-Gussman.
Whether you’re walking with hopes of decreasing your cancer risk or to make cancer treatments easier to endure, it may help if you move for as least as long as the physical activity guidelines recommend: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Whether you’re able to meet this goal in a given week may depend on your treatment regimen.
“Particular procedures or laboratory data may preclude patients from being as active as they would wish,” says Mansour. “When able to, most doctors would recommend 30 minutes of walking or activity daily.”
Some research suggests that exercise performed at higher levels of intensity, including brisk walking, may have the most positive effects for longevity and walking can be safer for those who are injury-prone, says Cortes. Still, he cautions that any “activities that have more risk of falls or trauma may pose more risks and should always be discussed with the healthcare team first.”
Incorporating walking into your daily routine may have a positive impact on your cancer status. Regardless of how much you’re able to walk, some is always better than none. Even just 10 minutes of walking a day can have a positive impact on mental and physical health.