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 Cancer, Weight Gain and Inactivity: Drop the Pounds and Cut the Risk 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Mind Over Matter by . View all columns in series
New evidence recently released by the World Health Organization's cancer agency (April 2001) is suddenly making chocolate bars, junk food snacks and television remote controls far less desirable.

Extra pounds are now causing extra concern especially when it comes to cancer risk.

According to Dr. Harri Vainio, chief of the chemoprevention unit at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, "Up to one third of cancers of the colon, breast, kidney and digestive tract are attributable to too much weight gain and too little exercise." The WHO expert panel recently convened to evaluate the composite risk of cancer in the context of obesity and exercise. While their findings do not imply that weight gain or inactivity are the only causes of these forms of cancer, their data cannot be ignored.

Clearly all of the answers are not known. Yet the committee is convinced that preventing weight gain and maintaining an active lifestyle has the potential to protect against colon, kidney, uterine, digestive tract and post-menopausal breast cancers.

These latest insights support findings published 4 years ago by a team of researchers in Norway working with the Cancer Registry in Oslo. They reported stunning results about the role of physical activity in the risk of breast cancer. Researchers studied more than 25,000 women, ages 20 to 54, over an average period of 13.7 years. Women who performed leisure time exercises at least 4 hours/week experienced a 37% percent reduction in the risk of breast cancer, while individuals who performed heavy manual labor demonstrated a 52 percent risk reduction.

It was also shown (get out your scales) that among lean women who exercised regularly, their risk of developing breast cancer plunged 72 percent!

Since an estimated 61% of Americans are already overweight, the real question is whether or not there’s any appreciable cancer prevention benefit from losing weight.

Fortunately, even in this especially murky arena of weight loss, the panel's insights seem to add clarity. They suggest that weight loss induced hormonal changes are likely to reduce the risks of some forms of cancer. It is also likely, although not altogether proven, that weight loss even late in life could significantly cut the risks of breast and uterine cancer.

The panel literally raised the bar for future research through the delineation of a number of research questions to be addressed in future studies. With a broad emphasis on the need for societal change, a number of key recommendations were also presented for conducting community intervention studies to prevent weight gain and promote physical activity. They suggested 3 critical focus areas:

  • Community (directed at everyone in the population)
  • Selective (directed at subgroups of the populations with an above-average risk of developing obesity)
  • Targeted (directed at high-risk individuals with existing weight problems but who are not yet obese)

In addition to suggestions for governmental and non-governmental organizations, worksites, schools, health professionals and educators, the expert panel also focused on families and individuals. Their advice (taken almost verbatim from the report) included:

  • Focusing on proper weight early in life
  • Maintaining weight as a lifelong strategy
  • Ensuring adequate physical activity to promote energy balance and weight control. This includes the performance of physical activity on most days of the week with a total of one hour per day of moderate-intensity activity such as walking especially for people with sedentary occupations. It is also suggested that more vigorous activities, such as fast walking, several times a week may give some additional benefits regarding cancer prevention.
  • Limiting the purchase and availability at home of high-calorie foods and beverages with low nutritional value, such as soda beverages and snacks. Instead healthy foods should be provided, with an abundant supply of fruits, vegetables and whole grain products.

The bottom line is simple. Despite our technological advances in cancer treatment over the last few decades, there simply isn’t a rational substitute for adopting a sensibly balanced lifestyle.

Yet issues of obesity and inactivity seem to be on the bottom burner for most people. Perhaps it's time we considered these suggestions not only to avoid cancer but also for preventing type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and a host of other chronic illnesses that are certain to impact quality of life.

A word of caution is in order. Do not underestimate the value of these recommendations! This is powerful advice that could save your life or the life of a loved-one. There is no medical substitute for taking better care of yourself - Mind Over Matter!

© 2000 Barry Bittman, MD all rights reserved

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 About The Author
Barry Bittman, MD is a neurologist, author, international speaker, award-winning producer/director and inventor. As CEO and Medical Director of the Mind-Body Wellness Center, a......moreBarry Bittman MD
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