Physical activity and cancer prevention: Pathways and targets for intervention

Connie J. Rogers, Lisa H. Colbert, John W. Greiner, Susan N. Perkins, Stephen D. Hursting

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

118 Scopus citations


The prevalence of obesity, an established epidemiological risk factor for many cancers, has risen steadily for the past several decades in the US and many other countries. Particularly alarming are the increasing rates of obesity among children, portending continuing increases in the rates of obesity and obesity-related cancers for many years to come. Modulation of energy balance, via increased physical activity, has been shown in numerous comprehensive epidemiological reviews to reduce cancer risk. Unfortunately, the effects and mechanistic targets of physical activity interventions on the carcinogenesis process have not been thoroughly characterized. Studies to date suggest that exercise can exert its cancer-preventive effects at many stages during the process of carcinogenesis, including both tumour initiation and progression. As discussed in this review, exercise may be altering tumour initiation events by modifying carcinogen activation, specifically by enhancing the cytochrome P450 system and by enhancing selective enzymes in the carcinogen detoxification pathway, including, but not limited to, glutathione-S-transferases. Furthermore, exercise may reduce oxidative damage by increasing a variety of anti-oxidant enzymes, enhancing DNA repair systems and improving intracellular protein repair systems. In addition to altering processes related to tumour initiation, exercise may also exert a cancer-preventive effect by dampening the processes involved in the promotion and progression stages of carcinogenesis, including scavenging reactive oxygen species (ROS); altering cell proliferation, apoptosis and differentiation; decreasing inflammation; enhancing immune function; and suppressing angiogenesis. A paucity of data exists as to whether exercise may be working as an anti-promotion strategy via altering ROS in initiated or preneoplastic models; therefore, no conclusions can be made about this possible mechanism. The studies directly examining cell proliferation and apoptosis have shown that exercise can enhance both processes, which is difficult to interpret in the context of carcinogenesis. Studies examining the relationship between exercise and chronic inflammation suggest that exercise may reduce pro-inflammatory mediators and reduce the state of low-grade, chronic inflammation. Additionally, exercise has been shown to enhance components of the innate immune response (i.e. macrophage and natural killer cell function). Finally, only a limited number of studies have explored the relationship between exercise and angiogenesis; therefore, no conclusions can be made currently about the role of exercise in the angiogenesis process as it relates to tumour progression. In summary, exercise can alter biological processes that contribute to both anti-initiation and anti-progression events in the carcinogenesis process. However, more sophisticated, detailed studies are needed to examine each of the potential mechanisms contributing to an exercise-induced decrease in carcinogenesis in order to determine the minimum dose, duration and frequency of exercise needed to yield significant cancer-preventive effects, and whether exercise can be used prescriptively to reverse the obesity-induced physiological changes that increase cancer risk.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)271-296
Number of pages26
JournalSports Medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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