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16 Nov 2022
High-intensity exercise cuts risk of metastatic cancer by 72 per cent
By Frances Marcellin
High-intensity exercise cuts risk of metastatic cancer by 72 per cent
Sprinting can reduce the risk of metastatic cancer by up to 72 per cent
Photo: Les Mills Grit
A new medical study from Tel Aviv University, Israel, has found that the risk of developing metastatic cancer, the leading cause of death in Israel, drops by up to 72 per cent with regular, high-intensity aerobic exercise.

The study, An exercise-induced metabolic shield in distant organs blocks cancer progression and metastatic dissemination, was published in the Cancer Research journal.

The research project was undertaken by a team from Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and led by Professor Carmit Levy from the Department of Human Genetics and Biochemistry and Dr Yftach Gepner from the School of Public Health and the Sylvan Adams Sports Institute.

It demonstrates how doing high-intensity aerobic exercise, which derives its energy from sugar, can significantly reduce the risk of metastatic cancer.

Levy said "Our study is the first to investigate the impact of exercise on the internal organs in which metastases usually develop, such as the lungs, liver, and lymph nodes.

"Examining the cells of these organs we found a rise in the number of glucose receptors during high-intensity aerobic activity – increasing glucose intake and turning the organs into effective energy-consumption machines, very much like the muscles.

"We assume that this happens because the organs must compete for sugar resources with the muscles, which are known to burn large quantities of glucose during physical exercise.

"Consequently, if cancer develops, the fierce competition over glucose reduces the availability of energy that is critical to metastasis. Moreover, when a person exercises regularly, this condition becomes permanent: the tissues of internal organs change and become similar to muscle tissue.

“Exercise changes the whole body, so the cancer cannot spread, and the primary tumor also shrinks in size,” said Levy.

"Our results indicate that unlike fat-burning exercise, which is relatively moderate, it is a high-intensity aerobic activity that helps in cancer prevention,” said Gepner. “If the optimal intensity range for burning fat is 65-70 per cent of the maximum heart rate, sugar burning requires 80-85 per cent – even if only for brief intervals. For example: a one-minute sprint followed by walking, then another sprint. Our results suggest that healthy individuals should also include high-intensity components in their fitness programmes.”

While intervals like these used to be typical only of professional athletes' training regimens, nowadays they are featured in amateur athletes’ schedules and mainstream fitness classes. They're also present in exercise routines aimed at heart and lung rehabilitation.

“It must be emphasised that physical exercise, with its unique metabolic and physiological effects, exhibits a higher level of cancer prevention than any medication or medical intervention to date,” said Gepner.

While previous studies have shown that physical exercise reduces cancer by up to 35 per cent, Levy and Gepner were able to study on a deeper level and show that high-intensity aerobic exercise can maximise cancer prevention.

“We all know that sports and physical exercise are good for our health," said Levy. "Our study, examining the internal organs, discovered that exercise changes the whole body, so that the cancer cannot spread, and the primary tumour also shrinks in size."

“Our results suggest that healthy individuals should also include high-intensity components in their fitness programmes,” said Gepner. “We believe that future studies will enable personalised medicine for preventing specific cancers, with physicians reviewing family histories to recommend the right kind of physical activity.”

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