Strengthen your body, protect your gut: how exercise can protect against bowel cancer

aged man running

Bowel cancer is Australia’s second deadliest cancer. Nearly 300 new cases are diagnosed every week, and over 5,000 people lose their life to bowel cancer each year. Despite its high mortality rate, bowel cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable cancers when detected in its earlier stages. It is estimated between one third and half of all bowel cancers can be prevented through healthy lifestyle and regular screening. This Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, join us in spreading awareness and supporting early detection and prevention efforts to reduce the impact of this serious disease. 

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, typically starts at the inner lining of the bowel as benign polyps. When these polyps are left undetected, they can become harmful to the body and result in bowel cancer. Bowel cancer can be called colon or rectal cancer depending on where the cancer begins.

Common bowel cancer symptoms

    • Blood in the stool
    • Changes in bowel habits or a feeling on incomplete evacuation
    • Unexplained weight loss
    • Unexplained tiredness
    • Vomiting
    • Abdominal cramping, bloating or pain


In the early stages of bowel cancer, there are often no symptoms, highlighting the importance of screening in detection and prevention. 

What causes bowel cancer?

There are several factors which have been shown to increase your risk of developing bowel cancer:

      • Genetic predisposition: a family history of bowel cancer

      • Dietary factors: such as a diet low in fibre or high in red and processed meats 

      • Lifestyle factors: lack of physical activity, obesity, smoking, alcohol

      • Age: whilst bowel cancer can impact people of all ages, according to research, the risk increases with age.

    Exercise as a preventative measure

    Studies have shown a clear association between regular exercise and a reduced risk of developing bowel cancer. Here’s why:

        • Healthy weight maintenance: Regular physical exercise lowers the risk of obesity, a known factor linked to the development of bowel cancer.

        • Reduces inflammation: Sedentary behaviour, combined with a poor diet, can lead to harmful changes in the gut. Exercise helps prevent these changes by reducing levels of inflammatory Cox-2 enzymes in the intestines.

      Asian couple doing dumbbell front lunge

      The impact of exercise on gut health

      Our gastrointestinal tract hosts a community of live microorganisms collectively known as the gut microbiota. These microorganisms play a crucial role in our health by providing nutrients, maintaining intestinal health, and regulating the immune system.

      Research suggests regular physical activity promotes digestive health and can improve the gut microbiota by:

          1. Enhancing gut microbiota: Regular exercise promotes a diverse and balanced microbiota, which in turn helps reduce inflammation and strengthens the immune system, helping our body to resist infections and chronic disease

          1. Stimulating intestinal activity: Physical activity increases blood flow to the muscles which help move food through the digestive tract, supporting regular bowel movements.

          1. Reducing exposure to carcinogens: Exercise reduces the time food spends in the colon, which in turn decreases the exposure of the digestive tract to potential carcinogens

        What type of exercise is beneficial for gut health and bowel cancer prevention?

        When it comes to exercises for gut and bowel health, consistency matters more than intensity. The Physical Activity and Exercise Guidelines for all Australians recommend adults should be active most days and include a mixture of different types of activities. Here are some options:

        Aerobic exercises

        Aerobic exercises like walking, running, and swimming increase heart rate and stimulate bowel function. To maximise benefits, aim for.

            • At least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as brisk walking, golf, swimming, mowing the lawn, or

            • 1.25-2.5 hours of vigorous-intensity activity per week such as jogging, HIIT classes, fast cycling, football, netball, or

            • A combination of both

          Strength training

          Building muscle mass through resistance exercises improves overall metabolism and digestive efficiency. Include weightlifting or bodyweight exercises in your routine at least two days per week. Examples include:

              • Pull-ups, push-ups, squats or lunges, lifting weights, or chores that include carrying, lifting, or digging

            Flexibility exercises

            Practices such as yoga can reduce stress and improve overall digestive function. Yoga promotes relaxation and may enhance gastrointestinal motility.

            Overcoming barriers to exercise

            Starting a new exercise routine can be challenging, but with the right approach, it becomes manageable.

            Start small

            Begin with small, achievable goals and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your exercise to prevent burnout and injury.

            Find enjoyable activities

            Choose exercises you enjoy, whether it’s dancing, hiking, or playing a sport, to stay motivated and committed.

            Seek support

            Join a fitness group or find a workout buddy to keep you accountable and make exercise more fun. Or see an Accredited Exercise Physiologist for tailored support and programming.

            See Also: The critical role of lifestyle medicine in preventing, managing and reversing Type 2 Diabetes

            Exercise for a bowel cancer-free future

            Incorporating regular exercise into your daily routine is a powerful step towards better bowel health and reduced cancer risk. During Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, take the opportunity to assess and improve your physical activity levels. Staying active can not only strengthen your body but also protect your gut, contributing to a healthier, cancer-free future.

            The team at Oracle Healthcare have the expertise and technology to develop exercise programs tailored to your individual needs and to help improve your bowel health.  

            Book an appointment with our team today for a healthier you!


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            Batty & Thune. 2000. Does physical activity prevent cancer?: Evidence suggests protection against colon cancer and probably breast cancer. BMJ, 321(7274):1424-1425.

            Bowel Cancer Australia. Symptoms. Symptoms – Bowel Cancer Australia

            Bowel Cancer Australia. (n.d.). Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.

            Clarke & Lockett. 2014. Primary prevention of colorectal cancer. In Cancer Forum. Vol.38,1:6-10.

            Colditz et al. 2012. Applying what we know to accelerate cancer prevention. Sci Transl Med. 4(127):127rv4.

            Dart et al. 2012. Commentary: eight ways to prevent cancer: a framework for effective prevention messages for the public. Cancer Causes Control. 23(4):601-8.

            Hayes et al. 2009. Australian Association for Exercise and Sport Science position stand: optimising cancer outcomes through exercise. Journal of science and medicine in sport. 12(4):428-434.

            Monda et al. 2017. Exercise modifies the gut microbiota with positive health effects. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2017.

            Oruç & Kaplan. 2019. Effect of exercise on colorectal cancer prevention and treatment. World journal of gastrointestinal oncology. 11(5):348.

            Sheng et al. 2020. The role of cyclooxygenase-2 in colorectal cancer. International journal of medical sciences.17(8):1095.

            World Health Organisation. Cancer Prevention. Available at

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