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Experts say physical activity, including dancing, can improve overall health as well as boost your mood.
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  • Regular physical activity is known to improve your overall physical health as well as your mental health.
  • In a new study, researchers say exercise can also reduce your risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • They say exercise strengthens a person’s muscles and increases blood flow to the brain, among other benefits.
  • It’s recommended adults get 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

There is little doubt that exercise improves your overall health and well-being.

It improves heart and lung health. It lifts your mood and increases your stamina.

Now, researchers say they are discovering that physical activity may reduce the risk of two high-profile diseases — cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

“If exercise could be bottled up and sold in pill form, it would be the most widely prescribed medicine in the world for the numerous physical and mental health benefits,” Todd Buckingham, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Mary Free Bed Sports Rehabilitation & Performance Lab in Wyoming, Michigan, told Healthline.

More than 46,000 cancer diagnoses could be avoided with 5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, according to a study published this week.

Physical activity is any movement that uses skeletal muscles and requires you to exert more energy than you would when resting. The activities include running, walking, dancing, biking, swimming, participating in sports, and even doing household chores.

“A few mechanisms behind why physical activity aids in the reduction of cancer are the positive physiological changes in the body. These include weight loss, making the heart stronger, causing the arteries to dilate more readily, allowing for improved blood flow through the body, and reducing the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol while raising the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol,” said Buckingham.

There isn’t an abundance of research to back up the notion that exercise reduces cancer rates.

Today, the link between the two is mostly observational, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Among other things, participants in studies usually self-reported their physical activity and then researchers followed up for years to document cancer diagnoses.

A 2018 study published in Cancer Treatment and Research Communications reported that lifetime physical inactivity was a risk factor for lung cancer, independent of smoking and obesity. A sedentary lifestyle also pointed to a higher number of deaths.

A 2019 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reported that people who had higher levels of physical activity had a 10 to 20 percent reduced risk of bladder, breast, colon, endometrial, esophageal, adenocarcinoma, renal, and gastric cancer.

A 2019 American College of Sports Medicine roundtable also found that physical activity may help in the prevention of breast, colon, endometrial, kidney, bladder, esophageal, and stomach cancers. Researchers added that physical activity could lower the risk of developing endometrial, colon, and lung cancer.

Experts say it is also important to continue exercise programs after cancer treatment has ended.

“Even in those patients who were diagnosed with cancer and finished their treatment, increased physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer returning,” Dr. Stefan Balan, the director of oncology services at Jersey City Medical Center, told Healthline.

One exception is that physical activity is associated with higher levels of melanoma, possibly because people who are more active are also more likely to have prolonged exposure to the sun.

Scientists have looked at how exercise affects cognitive function for many years, but this topic became more accepted over the past 15 to 20 years.

“Alzheimer’s disease occurs due to an ‘increased oxidative state’ in the brain. Studies have shown that physical activity is important for cells and tissues to resist the oxidative stress,” Dr. Santoshi Billakota, an adult neurologist, epileptologist and clinical assistant professor within the Department of Neurology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told Healthline.

“Exercise also leads to increased oxygenation and blood flow, resulting in improved memory, neurogenesis, and brain plasticity. Exercise is beneficial in the prevention and progression of dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease” Billakota said.

Your brain exercises both physically and cognitively.

Physical exercise, such as aerobic or strength activities, indirectly improves brain function by increasing neuroplasticity, which in turn increases cognition.

So does motor skills training, which includes activities that require thinking to complete, such as learning a new language or playing a strategy game.

Both types of activities improve cognitive functions but when combined, called dual-task training, is more effective, according to Yael Netz, in the article, “Is There a Preferred Mode of Exercise for Cognition Enhancement in Older Age?”

Martial arts is one such example. You have to think and focus at the same time you are moving your body.

In a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience and a 2020 study, Kaitlin B Casaletto, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of California at San Francisco, reported that physical activity improved cognition, including in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

In the most recent study, the researchers looked at levels of inflammation and the role it played in cognitive function.

They found that microglia, immune cells in the brain, worked to remove foreign invaders. But when these were overactivated, it resulted in inflammation and damaged neurons. In animals, exercise reduced the excess activation.

In a preliminary study, Casaletto and others said they found that physical activity had a significant effect on inflammation in people with severe Alzheimer’s disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activities per week with 2 or more days focused on major muscle groups, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activities per week with 2 or more days focused on major muscle groups.

Additional exercise provides additional health benefits.

There isn’t enough research to tell us exactly how much exercise can prevent or slow down cognitive decline, but experts say there is little doubt that regular exercise is an important part of remaining healthy — physically and mentally.