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Can Cardio Workouts Ward Off Cancer?

Heidi Kristoffer

If you're on the fence about hitting spin class today, science makes a convincing case for not skipping. People who do vigorous exercise are up to 30 percent less likely to get non-Hodgkins lymphoma than those who exercise lightly or not at all, reports a new study in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. Even better, the study suggests that the protective benefit of a good sweat sesh now will continue throughout your lifetime. (Exercise by the Numbers: 12 Reasons to Get Moving.)

The researchers asked over 800 cancer patients and healthy individuals to look back at each decade of their lives and report how much exercise they did and how intense it was. Participants ranked their intensity as light (such as walking), moderate (like lifting weights or jogging) and vigorous (like sprinting). The results showed a clear link between people who performed any type of exercise and lower instances of cancer. And the more intense the reported exercise, the greater the reduction in cancer—those who did the most vigorous exercise were 30 percent less likely to develop lymphoma.

This is great news considering non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is one of the most common cancers, making up about four percent of all diagnoses, says the American Cancer Society. The disease attacks the lymphatic system and can then spread quickly to others parts of the body—one reason why it has a fatality rate of nearly 30 percent. The lymphatic system functions as the filter of the body by removing toxins from the blood, and previous research has shown that exercise improves lymphatic function, thereby keeping them cancer-free. So think of those HIIT classes you're sweating through now as your armor against future cancer. (Try a Home Workout Routine: Low-Impact HIIT.)

And the protective benefits of working out continue even if you do get cancer. A separate study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that moderate exercise like fast walking or slow jogging helped cancer patients respond better to their chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and even ameliorated some of the side effects like low blood count and fatigue. Low-intensity exercise was even found to help make tumors less aggressive by flooding them with oxygen. (Why It's Okay to Work Out at a Lower Intensity.)

"An intervention like exercise has almost universally positive side effects versus other treatments that can have deleterious side effects," says lead study author Brad Behnke, Ph.D., an associate professor of exercise physiology at the University of Florida. "Exercise is a type of therapy that benefits multiple systems in the body, and may permanently alter the environment within the tumor."

Anyone who's ever had a long, stressful day knows how easy it is to come up with reasons to flake on your workout (ahem, who hasn't used one of these 21 Hilarious Ways to Justify Skipping the Gym?), but these new studies offer a powerful reason to hit the gym anyhow. Cardio today keeps cancer away? Okay, it might not end up on any bumper stickers any time soon, but we like it. Now go reserve that bike!

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