Staying fit and eating right: The healthy lifestyle to reduce risk of cancer
Regardless of who you are the idea of one day developing cancer is never a welcome thought. Perhaps you’ve seen someone you love go through the cancer battle, if so you’d know that it’s not something you’d wish upon any one. However, there is more and more evidence to suggest that nutrition and physical fitness could have a huge role to play in preventing some cancers.
Staying physically fit has many positive health benefits including the prevention of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and weight gain. But according to The Cancer Society NZ, regular physical exercise is also instrumental in reducing the risk of developing some cancers such as; colon, breast, prostate, lung and endometrial cancers.
Partaking in moderate cardiovascular exercise daily (like jogging, swimming or dancing) has a beneficial effect on the levels of some hormones such as oestrogen and insulin. It is believed that high levels of oestrogen in the body may help to fuel the growth of cancers in the breast and womb areas, therefore by including cardio into your daily routine you may reduce your risk of developing these cancers.
Colon cancer is another illness that may be less likely to occur if you exercise regularly. This is because movement aids the digestion of food, which helps the process of evacuation, reducing the time that toxic chemicals (like those created in the body when you consume processed foods) are in contact with your large intestine and likely to cause damage that could lead to cancer.
As well as reducing the likelihood of developing cancer, staying physically active is beneficial simply for its role in preventing obesity. Obesity occurs when a person’s weight by height ratio reaches 30 on the body mass index, known as the BMI.
In New Zealand our rates of obesity are truly staggering. According to Statistics New Zealand, as at 2015, almost one in three New Zealanders were obese. That is just over 30% of the population. Obesity has a huge range of associated health risks such as heart disease and diabetes. Diabetes, when left un-treated can lead to blindness, limb loss and kidney failure.
For people who are naturally thin, it may seem like they get a free pass when it comes to physical exercise. This is not always the case. It is possible for those thin people, who seem to be able to eat whatever they want and never exercise, to be invisibly harbouring dangerous internal fats around vital organs. This is known as TOFI; thin on the outside, fat on the inside. The dangers of becoming TOFIinclude insulin resistance, diabetes and heart conditions. The dense fat accumulated around organs, known as visceral fat, can also produce other inflammatory markers that move through the blood stream, potentially causing a wide range of diseases and cancers. High levels of visceral fat can also lead to hormone imbalance, which brings a heightened risk of cancer.
The best way to prevent becoming TOFI or obese and gaining dangerous levels of visceral fat is to:
- Avoid processed foods.
- Exercise daily.
- Eat a diet high in nutrient rich foods.
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- Keep medications to a minimum.
- Avoid crash dieting.
- Work towards reducing stress – stress raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause the body to store visceral fat around the abdomen.
- Get at least eight hours of sleep each night.
It may not always seem like an appealing idea to squeeze into those workout clothes and head out for a run, hike, or off to the gym. But as well as reducing your risks of cancer, regular cardiovascular exercise has huge range of health benefits. Cardio can strengthen your heart and lungs, reduce body weight, increase bone density, temporarily relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression and improve sleep.
Another thing to consider is the positive impact cardio has on your skin! Because cardio increases the heart rate and thus circulation, improved blood flow helps to nourish the skin. “Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to working cells throughout the body including the skin,” says dermatologist Ellen Marmur, associate professor of dermatology at Mt Sinai School of Medicine. Exercise also helps remove the body’s waste products via the skin. "By increasing blood flow, a bout of exercise helps flush cellular debris out of the system," says Marmur. "You can think of it as cleansing your skin from the inside."
According to The Cancer Society, when it comes to preventing cancer through exercise, the usual 30 minutes a day recommended by health professionals may not be enough. Scientific evidence suggests that the more exercise you do, the lower your risk of developing cancer becomes. Cardiovascular exercise is anything that makes you huff and puff. It can be brisk walking, jogging, dancing, cycling, or active gardening. But the best kind of cardio is the kind that you actually do. Therefore it’s best to find a form of exercise you really enjoy doing. Then it’s not a chore.
As well as consciously exercising, it is also a good idea to add more movement into your daily life. Walk to work, go for a wander at lunch time. Take the dog for a morning walk. Walk the kids to school. Take up gardening. Or get technical – get a pedometer or a fitness app on your phone to help you count the number of steps you’ve done each day. If you really love gadgets, how about a Fit Bit? It will tell you how much time you’ve spend moving, sitting and sleeping and report it all to your phone. Make exercise fun.
As well as cardiovascular exercise, it is also important to partake in regular strength training exercise to help maintain lean muscle. After the age of 30, physically inactive people can lose on average 5% of their muscle mass each decade. This is known as age related Sarcopenia. With reduced muscle mass also comes reduced strength, mobility and coordination. These are important when we reach old age as we become less likely to right ourselves to prevent falls.
Another encouraging factor when it comes to strength training is a study published by Dr Mercola on Mercola.com. The study found that stronger men, who regularly took park in weight training, were 40% less likely to die from cancer. 8,500 men were tracked for more than two decades, all of whom underwent regular medical check-ups that included tests of muscular strength. The men who had the highest muscle strength were between 30 – 40% less likely to develop fatal cancers. “One of the primary reasons exercise works to lower your cancer risk is because it drives your insulin levels down.” Writes Dr Mercola on the study. “Controlling insulin levels is one of the most powerful ways to reduce your cancer risks.”
Eating a healthy diet low in processed foods is imperative if you want to reduce your risks of cancer. According to an article on WHO Euro, there is a plethora of information to indicate that cancer is more common in those who do not consume a diet rich in nutrients. Around 30% of all cancer cases can be linked to poor diet, when it comes to cancers of the gastrointestinal tract this figure jumps up to 70%. The best thing to take from these statistics is that these cancers could be hugely preventable if we simply learn to eat for health instead of for recreation. As Hippocrates, the great physician once said: “Let food by thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Eat Real Food
Eating well is simple if stick to this simple rule: Eat. Real. Food.
That means sticking to foods that are in their natural state; vegetables, lean meats, unprocessed whole grains (like brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth and oats), raw organic high fat dairy, nuts and seeds, legumes and as many leafy greens as you can manage.
Leafy greens contain high amounts of chlorophyll which helps to purify the blood and support the liver. The liver is a busy organ. Not only does it produce bile which helps the small intestine absorb and break down fats, contribute to the production of blood cells, assist in the creation of blood clotting factors, metabolise fats and proteins, store vitamins and support immunological function, it also filters the blood, removing toxins that we have ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. It does the same thing for toxins created inside the body, balancing hormone levels and excreting those that are in excess. This hormonal balancing act is a vital part in reducing the risk of cancer. Support your liver with greens. Juice some silver beet. Sneak some kale into your smoothie. Slip some spinach into your wholegrain sandwich and have a mesclun salad at dinner.
As well as cramming in the greens, nutritionists also recommend to ‘eat a rainbow’, that means selecting a diet heavy in plant based foods of all colours. Red cabbage, tomatoes, yellow capsicum, carrots, blueberries. Eat a rainbow!
Avoiding Processed Foods
Another way to take the pressure off your liver and reduce your risk of cancer is to avoid processed foods. Cakes, biscuits, crackers, white bread, chips, cereals, fruit flavoured yogurts, fruit juices, sauces, pies, alcohol and candy are just a few examples of processed foods that are low in nutritional value and packed with sugar, processed grains and a bunch of other chemical additives that put pressure on your precious liver. Remember, your liver already has so much to do, why burden it with any extra junk? Processed foods may look harmless and happy – brightly coloured candy and doughnuts with hundreds and thousands look fun – but the truth is the colourings used to make them look fun are often petroleum based – the body cannot break down petrol. One commonly used colouring named simply Yellow #6 has been linked to cancer, hyperactivity, allergic reactions, migraines and swelling of the skin. Despite this, it is still being used in popular brands of candy.
For years fat was to blame for every health problem there was – especially obesity and heart disease. Now there is more and more evidence to support the idea that natural occurring fats are actually beneficial to the body and that excessive amounts of processed sugar is actually far worse for us. That’s not to say that all fats are healthy. Trans-fats – those most commonly added to processed foods are still off the menu. But fats found in seafood, nuts and avocado are considered a beneficial part of the diet. Some nutritionists now even welcome the consumption of saturated fat – found in meat and dairy – as part of a healthy diet. Though others believe they can contribute to a heightened risk of developing cancer.
Eating processed sugar on a regular basis not only puts a lot of strain on the liver, it has also been proven to not only feed cancers, but also to potentially cause them. According to a study by Johnathan Middleton at Greenmedinfo sugar was found to be “a primary driver in the initiation of cancerous characteristics within previously healthy cells. This means that by regularly consuming high levels of sugar, you are putting yourself at risk of developing cancers.
Recently there has been a huge focus on the impact gut health has on the immune system and therefore the health of the entire body. Processed foods tend to diminish beneficial gut flora and even lead to inflammation in the bowel, this in turn leads to cancers. Consuming fermented foods can help to realign the gut after battering it with excess alcohol or processed foods. Known as probiotics, fermented foods like raw sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, kefir milk and yoghurt are now being used to treat illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and cancer. So start eating that sauerkraut!
Peace of Mind
Sometimes, despite our best efforts illnesses just happen. While we can do our best to reduce out likelihood of developing some cancers, we can never be 100% risk free. In some cases the genes we are born with may increase our risks of developing cancer. To really be on the safe side, the best option is to be prepared. That’s where Cigna’s Cancer Cover may help. Cancer Cover by Cigna offers you a lump sum payment that will be paid to you on diagnosis, to put towards treatment or any other associated costs. That way, if despite all your best efforts to prevent cancer, you’ll be well prepared to beat it.
The health and wellness information on this page is for informational purposes. It does not constitute medical advice and is not intended to be a substitute for proper medical care provided by a doctor or nurse. Cigna assumes no responsibility for any circumstances arising out of the use, misuse, interpretation or application of any information supplied in the content. For more information, please read our Community Guidelines.