Mairéad Cooney, a postgraduate researcher in the field of physical activity and cancer at the School of Health & Human Performance, Dublin City University explains how exercise is one of the key lifestyle habits you can tackle to help prevent cancer.
‘Benefits of exercise are immediate’
“It is important to know that as soon as you become active, your health starts to benefit immediately,” says Mairéad Cooney, a postgraduate researcher in the field of physical activity and cancer at the School of Health & Human Performance, Dublin City University.
Regular physical activity can help to reduce your risk of cancer in a number of ways, including:
- Helping to maintain a healthy body weight
- Reducing inflammation
- Having positive effects on your immune system.
You don’t have to join a gym
“You don’t have to join a gym; you don’t have to be doing structured exercise classes; you don’t have to be out running, if that’s not what you enjoy. Physical activity can be incorporated into your everyday life in simple ways. Try to use physical activity as a mode of transport. Try to walk as much as you can. If you’re meeting your friend for a coffee, why not meet for a walk instead?” says Mairéad.
If you have never been active, or have been inactive for a while due to injury or ill health, the thought of becoming active again can be overwhelming.
“Someone might think ‘Oh no, I’ll have to go to a gym’ but it doesn’t have to be like that. If walking is what you enjoy, then that is perfect. It’s also important to consider obstacles that could prevent you from being active, like bad weather or lack of time. By thinking of these challenges in advance, you can implement a plan to overcome them” says Mairéad.
Make a plan
To ensure that physical activity becomes a lifelong habit, it’s important to sit down and identify the obstacles that might stop you from being regularly physically active. For example, when the weather is bad you could choose to do a home-based programme that includes simple exercises that don’t require expensive equipment.
“Getting support from your family and friends is important too. Consider doing activities together as a family, or with a group of friends.” This can help to boost motivation on the days that you may not feel like being active.
Do something you enjoy
A sustainable way for you to continue to be physically active is to do something that you enjoy. This might mean you need to explore a few different options, like swimming, cycling or dancing, before you find the right activity for you.
Set realistic goals
“Set goals that are realistic and achievable for you. This may initially be aiming to go for a fifteen minute walk three days a week, or planning to increase your activity at the weekends by going for a cycle or swim. Achieving your goal will help to increase your motivation and encourage you to be more active. “Every step counts” says Mairéad.
From there, you can gradually increase your number of minutes of physical activity to achieve the recommended levels of 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic activity, like walking or cycling. It is also recommended to include exercises that increase your strength on two days each week. Increasing your strength will help with everyday chores like carrying the shopping or hanging out clothes on the washing line.
Exercise benefits keep growing
The more you exercise, the more you will benefit. In addition to reducing your risk of some cancers, your increased fitness will benefit:
- Your heart
- Cognitive function
- Physical wellbeing
- Psychological well being
- Weight management
- Stress management.
Mairéad also stresses how important it is to avoid too much sedentary behaviour.
Don’t sit around too much
“Sedentary behaviour is when you sit for prolonged periods of time, like sitting down at the computer, watching TV or playing video games. There is growing evidence that suggests prolonged periods of time spent sitting increases the likelihood of developing various types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes, so it’s important to break up these long periods of sitting with regular activity breaks” says Mairéad.
Little and often does it
“Try to break up your day with exercise. If you have to go to a meeting in another building, take the longer route there and use the stairs rather than the lift.
“During lunchtime, try to be active, even just for 10 minutes. If the weather is too bad to go outside, go for a walk around your building and up and down the stairs.
“Try to break up your day, so you are not sitting for long periods. The physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, can be broken down any way you want and accumulated through shorter bouts throughout the day,” says Mairéad.
If you have health problems, it is important to consult with your doctor before you begin a physical activity programme.
'Get Ireland Active' has lots of information on physical activity - from the benefits of being active to how to get started. http://www.getirelandactive.ie/ The website also has an exercise booklet- designed by Get Ireland Active, the HSE and Diabetes Ireland- which includes some good examples of the muscular strengthening exercises (e.g. sit to stand, squats with the assistance of a chair, chairs sits, etc.) and provides a home-based programme you can use to get started. It also provides a good template for action plan/goal setting. You can find the booklet here.
Park Run organises free, weekly 5km walks/runs in open spaces around Ireland on Saturday mornings. They are open to everyone and are safe and easy to take part in. https://www.parkrun.ie/