Exercise and physical health: cancer and immune function

Res Q Exerc Sport. 1995 Dec;66(4):286-91. doi: 10.1080/02701367.1995.10607913.


Over the last decade, there has been accumulating epidemiological data suggesting that exercise may decrease the risk of cancer, particularly colon cancer. However, exercise appears unrelated to rectal cancer risk. With regard to other cancers, because physical activity can alter levels of reproductive hormones, investigators have hypothesized that active individuals should experience decreased incidence of breast or prostate cancer. The better conducted studies suggest that exercise may reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. However, the epidemiological data on prostate cancer have been inconsistent. Meanwhile, data on other site-specific cancers have been sparse. An exciting and emerging body of research has suggested that exercise, at least in moderate amounts, can enhance the human immune system. Theoretically, then, this provides a further biological basis for expecting an inverse relationship between physical activity and cancer risk. However, the changes seen in immune function tend to be transient in nature; thus, the physiological significance with respect to cancer development is uncertain. Preliminary data also suggest that exercise may be beneficial for cancer patients by improving the quality of life and enhancing immune function. Although promising, this needs more careful research. Again, it is unclear whether the enhanced immune function is of any clinical significance in retarding the spread of cancer that has already developed. Finally, with regard to URTIs, moderate exercise appears to decrease the risk of this infection, although high-endurance exercise may increase the risk. This finding parallels the changes seen in the immune system in response to exercise and comes as no surprise, as the immune system also regulates susceptibility to infections.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Colonic Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Colonic Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology*
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Rectal Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Rectal Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / physiopathology
  • Risk Factors