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Is Preventing Colorectal Cancer With Diet and Exercise Possible?
General Wellness

Is Preventing Colorectal Cancer With Diet and Exercise Possible?

By Your Health Staff
Posted: March 18, 2024

During their lifetimes, around 1 in 23 men and 1 in 25 women will develop colorectal cancer — the third most common type of cancer (when skin cancer is excluded). However, the diagnosis rate for the disease has dropped steadily since the 1980s. Why? Regular screening tests, such as colonoscopies at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, play a large role in lowering the risk of and even preventing colorectal cancer from developing. But getting screenings isn’t the only thing you can do to reduce your risk.

“Making lifestyle changes, such as watching your diet and exercising regularly, also helps reduce your risk for the disease,” says Dr. Paul Johnson, surgical oncologist with Methodist Cancer Institute. “March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so it’s a great time to implement these changes.”

Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer

Anyone can develop the disease at any age, though it is much more common in people 55 and older. Some people naturally have a higher risk of colorectal cancer, including those with:

  • Family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Genetic conditions such as Lynch syndrome or familial adenomatous polyposis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
  • Personal history of abdominal or pelvic radiation

African Americans, Native Americans and people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent also have higher rates of colorectal cancer than people of other ethnicities and races.

All these factors increase your risk for colorectal cancer, and you cannot change them. But half of all colorectal cancers are linked to risk factors that can be changed, including:

  • Diets high in red and processed meats
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Moderate to heavy alcohol use
  • Obesity
  • Smoking

People with Type 2 diabetes also have a higher risk of colorectal cancer. Managing your diabetes by following your provider’s instructions is vital to lowering your risk.

Change Your Diet, Reduce Your Risk

Research has found a connection between diet and colorectal cancer. This doesn’t mean eating certain things will eliminate your risk of developing colorectal cancer or that eating other foods will definitely give you cancer. But it does mean you can actively reduce your risk by adjusting how you eat. An ideal colorectal cancer preventive diet looks like:

  • Consuming plenty of dietary fiber, which can be found in whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet overall
  • Incorporating calcium-rich foods into your diet, such as low-fat dairy products (especially yogurt)
  • Limiting consumption of added sugars, red meat and processed meats
  • Limiting or eliminating alcohol

Research definitively shows the higher your consumption of red meat, the higher your risk for colorectal cancer. Studies have found the same for alcohol. Following the Mediterranean diet, a semi-vegetarian diet (following a vegetarian diet with only the occasional fish or meat) diet or pescatarian diet (adding seafood to a vegetarian diet), is recommended for the most benefit. As a bonus, you’ll also lower your risk for heart disease.


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Get Active

Regular moderate- to high-intensity exercise is another proven way to improve your chances of preventing colon cancer, though the American Cancer Society says that research has not proven a link between exercise and risk reduction in rectal cancer. One study found that people who exercised the most had a 19% lower risk of developing colon cancer than those with the lowest rate of physical activity. Lab studies found that exercise may decrease the number of intestinal polyps by 50%.

To reduce the risk of colon cancer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends people aim for:

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or at least 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise weekly
  • Weight training or other muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week

People who regularly exercise also tend to have better outcomes if they are diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Additionally, exercise may lower the risks of other types of cancer, including breast, kidney, ovarian and pancreatic cancers. Exercise may also help you maintain a healthy weight, reducing your risk.

If you want to exercise and lose weight, you can join others in Memphis and the surrounding community in the Healthier 901 Initiative. Use the free health resources provided on the Healthier 901 app to stay motivated, discover health tips that fit your lifestyle and goals and learn about Healthier 901 events near you.

Don’t Forget Screenings

Unlike most cancers, colorectal cancer can be detected when it is still in precancerous stages.

Regular colonoscopies are the gold standard for detecting and removing precancerous polyps from your colon. Colonoscopies can also detect colorectal cancer early when it is more easily treatable.

“People at average risk for colorectal cancer should start colonoscopy screening tests at age 45,” Dr. Johnson says. “If your results are normal, you can wait 10 years between screenings. If you are at a higher risk due to family history, genetics, race or lifestyle factors, you should talk to your Methodist Le Bonheur primary care provider about starting screening at an earlier age and may need more frequent screenings.”

Get Screened

Schedule an appointment with your Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare primary care physician today to discuss your screening options. Talk to your doctor about your risk of colorectal cancer.


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