Does exercise reduce the risk of colorectal cancer?

Young woman doing a side lung stretch outside on a track.


Find out the vital role of exercise in lowering colorectal cancer risk.


By Pranat Kumar, MD, Colorectal Surgery, Nuvance Health, Director of the Rectal Cancer Program, Vassar Brothers Medical Center


Colorectal cancer is an interesting disease: It is one of the only cancers that can be prevented through screenings. You can manage your colorectal cancer risk before you start screenings and beyond by regularly exercising. Studies show a strong link between exercise and reducing colorectal cancer risk. Read on to find out why and get tips for incorporating exercise into your daily life.


What is colorectal cancer?


Colorectal cancer includes colon cancer and rectal cancer and originates in the large intestine, which is part of the digestive tract. It is the second most common cause of cancer deaths among men and women, according to the American Cancer Society.


Guess what? You can prevent colorectal cancer through colonoscopy screenings! The United States Prevention Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends individuals at average risk of developing colorectal cancer have colonoscopy screenings starting at age 45. Your doctor may recommend screenings earlier depending on your risk.



During a colonoscopy screening, your gastroenterologist can remove precancerous polyps before they have a chance to turn into cancer. They can also identify cancer early when it is most treatable. 


Colonoscopy screenings are one effective and safe way to lower your risk of developing colorectal cancer. There are other ways to lower your risk, including exercise. 



How can exercise lower cancer risk?


The saying “movement is medicine” holds truth, especially in the context of cancer prevention. Research, including a study of 1.44 million adults published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found a link between regular physical activity and a decreased risk of various cancers, including breast cancer, colon cancer and endometrial cancer.


Why? Exercise helps you maintain a healthy weight, balance your hormone levels and reduce inflammation in the body — all of which play pivotal roles in cancer prevention.



Does exercise affect colorectal cancer?


Yes! Exercise affects colorectal cancer. Specific to colorectal cancer, the evidence supporting the protective role of exercise is compelling. Sedentary lifestyles and obesity have been identified as key risk factors for colorectal cancer. Both sedentary lifestyles and obesity are prevalent among Americans; many of us have jobs that require sitting at a computer most of the day, and many of us also have jam-packed schedules where exercise is difficult to squeeze in and pre-prepared meals on the go offer convenience.



Inactivity and excess weight contribute to chronic inflammation, a notorious precursor to cancer. Research highlights that regular exercise mitigates these risks by regulating insulin levels, reducing obesity and combating inflammation.



Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity can lower the risk of developing colorectal cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends adults exercise 150 to 300 minutes per week at moderate intensity, which is 30 to 60 minutes per day, five days per week. Adults can also benefit from 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week, which is about 10 to 20 minutes per day, five days per week.


Any exercise is better than none, and research suggests even small increments in physical activity can offer protective benefits against this disease.



What is the best way to exercise daily?


Even if you only have 10 minutes to get your heart rate up between work meetings or your kids’ activities, it counts! It is also important to set realistic goals and find a physical activity you enjoy and look forward to. For me, I enjoy playing baseball and spending time with my team.


Nuvance Health colorectal surgeon Dr. Pranat Kumar pitching a baseball.


Here are tips to integrate physical activity into your lifestyle:


Start small: Begin with short, manageable sessions of physical activity, gradually increasing intensity and duration as your fitness improves.


Set realistic goals: Establish achievable exercise goals and celebrate your milestones to stay motivated. One of the main reasons it is difficult to stick to a workout routine is because we feel defeated if we miss a session, and that can lead to lack of motivation. Rather than commit to a two-hour gym workout, consider your most difficult day schedule-wise and what you can realistically do for exercise. If you can squeeze in a high-impact 15-minute workout on difficult days, you will find it easier to stick to on most days.


Incorporate activity into daily tasks: Take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk or cycle to work, or add some vigor to your gardening and household chores. You can even do 10 jumping jacks every time you use the bathroom.


Diversify your activities: Engage in a variety of exercises to keep your routine interesting and comprehensive. This can include walking, cycling, swimming or group fitness classes. If you are interested in group fitness but gyms aren’t your thing, consider using an app for at-home workouts. If you love the activity, you will look forward to it, whether dancing to your favorite music in your living room or playing Frisbee with your dog.


Work out with a buddy or in a group: Exercising with a friend can increase your accountability and make physical activity more enjoyable.


Embrace technology: Utilize fitness apps or wearables to track your progress, set reminders and stay motivated.


Sleep in workout clothes or exercise in your work clothes. OK, this might be odd, but go with it. … If you are ready to work out, it is one less barrier to exercising. You can pop out of bed and be ready to exercise, or you can take a brisk 30-minute walk right after work without packing a change of clothes or going home first to change.


Listen to your body: While regular exercise is beneficial, it is important to rest when needed and avoid overexertion so you can continue being active long-term.


What are other ways to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer?


Exercise is one way to lower your colorectal cancer risk, and studies show it is effective. But it is even more effective combined with eating a healthy diet full of fiber-rich whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Also, limited alcohol consumption and not smoking are very important ways to lower colorectal cancer risk.



These are what we call modifiable risk factors. While you can live a healthy lifestyle, there are non-modifiable risk factors you can’t change that could affect your colorectal cancer risk. These include:


Your personal history: Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, increases risk for colorectal cancer and a history of colon polyps or colon or rectal cancer. Your genetics also play a role. Lynch syndrome is caused by an inherited gene mutation that increases risk for colorectal cancer.


Family health history: You may be at increased risk if a first-degree relative (parent, sibling or child) had colon cancer or rectal cancer precancerous polyps.



Ethnicity and race:African American and Ashkenazi Jewish ethnicities are at increased risk for colorectal cancer.


It is important to have annual checkups with a primary care provider to assess your overall health and risk for certain medical conditions, and to start colonoscopy screenings with a gastroenterologist at age 45 if you are at average risk.


Ready for a colonoscopy screening? Find a gastroenterologist near you.


The bottom line: The link between exercise and reduced risk of colorectal cancer is undeniable. By adopting an active lifestyle, you can lower your risk of colorectal cancer and enhance your well-being. Remember, the journey to better health doesn’t require major changes overnight. Small, consistent steps toward incorporating physical activity into your daily life can make a significant difference. Embrace movement as a powerful tool to fight against colorectal cancer and your overall vibrant future.