For about half of my life from age 15 to 30 I was a competitive swimmer. I loved the pool and the camaraderie of a team. I didn’t really compete as an adult, but trained competitively and usually led my lane during long, grueling practices. I felt alive when the water rushed over my body at top speed, proud of my athletic ability, part of something special when bonding with my teammates. I was a sprinter, swimming freestyle and butterfly so fast you could count on one hand the number of strokes it took me to get across the pool.
In addition to swimming I was a regular at bootcamp classes around Los Angeles, and a membership to a large gym where I lifted weights when not swimming or tearing up the treadmill at Barry’s. I tell you this because you might imagine me as incredibly muscled and fit, but the reality was much different. Even with my degree of athleticism I had a hard time maintaining muscle or keeping lean. If you have read any of my articles you also know that I was struck down with thyroid cancer in my early thirties.
Many of us practice athletic training in part because we want to avoid such health problems, and yet I found myself one day unable to walk around the block without wheezing, having lost all my lean muscle, acquired significant body fat, and suffered early aging only to find out that all my health problems were much more serious than I had ever imagined.
You might also know people who seemed fit and active only to come down with cancer as well, or a heart attack or other health crisis, perhaps even passing away. Though this happens with surprising regularity it is always regarded as a fluke, even by medical professionals who should be more perceptive, as if their disease happened in spite of their dedication to health rather than because of it. There is a clear and distinct connection between cardiovascular exercise and cancer, and I will help you learn a little here about how to avoid and prevent it.
First, the truth about cancer is that you do not have to get it. Cancer is not a frightening, mysterious disease. Cancer is a logical outcome of stressors placed upon the limited capacity of our mortal physiology. It never occurs when factors support the proper working of cellular respiration, which is the measure by which cells produce energy, and will always occur when factors work in extreme antagonism to it. No person diagnosed with cancer will wake up one day, feeling healthy and happy, and suddenly find tumors invading their body. Cancer is always preceded by other symptoms such as fatigue, chronic pain, insomnia, hair loss, edema, or muscle wasting, because the conditions which cause cancer to develop also cause these types of metabolic dysfunction, shutting down or limiting normal cellular respiration and thus inhibiting normal and healthy physiological pathways. Ultimately, cancer develops when cells in a certain area of the body are suffocating, for various reasons unable to respirate properly, and this triggers those cells to revert to backup methods of energy generation which, in tandem with the factors that are causing the suffocation in the first place, make the cell’s programming go haywire as it attempts to fix itself, but which factors prevent proper healing and thus sustain the uncontrollable growth environment which promotes proliferation and cancer.
Many environmental factors can initialize cancer. A poor diet, pesticides and weed-killer, radiation from medical or airport screening x-rays, or toxic chemicals and heavy metal contamination. Alcohol does not actually cause cancer but instead accelerates its development, so someone developing cancer who does not drink might not see symptoms for twenty years, but the same person who drinks heavily would see them in five. Even though environmental factors can initialize cancer, it is the lifestyle and behavior patterns of the human organism itself which cultures it.
The primary drivers of cancer are aerobic suffocation and nutrient deprivation. Aerobic suffocation occurs any time that stress-associated metabolic products are elevated in the tissues to the point that normal mitochondrial respiration is inhibited, and this condition never occurs as greatly as it does during cardiovascular exercise and starvation, and many of us simultaneously practice both. Within as little as five minutes running on a treadmill the body begins to excrete lactic acid in an attempt both to dissuade the organism from exhausting precious nutritive resources but also to lower the oxidative rate of cells in order to spare them from total oxidative destruction. If an organism were able to workout indefinitely without these safeguards it would run through all of its nutrients within a very short time and drop dead. To prevent this from happening our body experiences pain and fatigue as a fail-safe mechanism, but most athletes take this pain as evidence of limitation, rather than a warning. When my body began to fail from the years of abuse I saw it as a weakness to be overcome rather than a sign of walking the razor’s edge. Sadly, many athletes push through these warning signs and drop dead suddenly of heart attacks or develop cancer and continue to push through it as if doing so will somehow remodel the disease and save them from death. It does not.
If excessive exercise were the only factor, we’d be fine. But usually there are compounding factors which synchronistically support the development of cancer along with lifestyle factors to further suppress cellular respiration and thus culture the development of cancer. A recent study showed that NSAIDS like ibuprofen and acetaminophen can actually increase your risk of heart attacks and strokes, or inhibit muscle gains. Another recently showed that ibuprofen is actually associated with erectile dysfunction. The reason these medications cause such harm is in part because they too strongly inhibit inflammation. Though inflammation is always portrayed as harmful there are many forms which are actually healthy, and necessary for intracellular signaling and the development and repair of tissues. Shutting off these signals with the use of these medications inhibits the normal cellular processes which repair and restore cells. Muscle growth is entirely a process of inflammation, and my regular consumption of ibuprofen or acetaminophen after workouts when I was younger is one of the myriad of reasons why muscle growth was so difficult for me to achieve, as I was unwittingly shutting off the inflammatory signals which stimulate its growth. These medications also contribute to cancer and metabolic illness in the long run, because by shutting down good inflammation they inhibit the proliferation of and are toxic to mitochondria, and our cells cannot respirate properly without sufficient mitochondrial density and activity. A woman showing signs of mild postpartum eclampsia recently asked me for help, as her doctors weren’t able to do anything except monitor her situation. I found out she was taking copious amounts of ibuprofen, prescribed to her like candy as if there were no side effects to be concerned and was enough to interrupt the healing inflammation pathways, which increased her pain, slowed her recovery, and now threatened to cause serious harm. I advised her to use aspirin instead. She switched and not only did her symptoms abate quickly, her pain also disappeared in just a few days and she began to heal rapidly.
Some dietary factors also interrupt cellular respiration, such as bad fats and heavy metals. Inferior fats such as vegetable oils interrupt cellular respiration, and over time the heavy consumption of unstable fats cause severe mitochondrial decay, as those fats are highly susceptible to oxidative damage, thus destroying mitochondria by formation of reactive oxygen species and lipid peroxides. Those who engage in cardio often go on low-fat diets, which can be helpful in some cases but often the fats which do exist are those which do not share the same physiological stability as our own endogenous fats and, being susceptible to inappropriate oxidation, contribute to the suffocation of mitochondrial respiration. These kinds are fats such as soy, or canola oil. Excess iron and copper in the tissues too can cause similar problems, as they are the catalysts for burdensome oxidation and the formation of free radicals. Even worse are deficiencies in helpful minerals like sodium, chloride, calcium, potassium, and magnesium which are lost during strenuous exercise, and amounts needed to restore their loss far exceed that which are in cheaply made sports drinks, poor in nutrition when compared to, say, an apple. Loss of vital minerals destroys a cell’s capacity to withstand stress, and so inflicting stress upon a cell as what occurs during strenuous cardiovascular activity is immeasurably worsened by mineral and vitamin deficiencies, a state which often occurs in those who are athletically inclined due to dietary restrictions and fasting. When cells run out of sodium, for instance, they lose their ability to manage water, and water escapes fatigued cells and fills the tissues around them, causing the kind of edema and swelling which is seen in severe metabolic illness such as cancer. When cells are deprived of these necessary minerals from overuse and/or insufficiency of diet the cell reverts to backup forms of energy generation such as fermentation, which reduces the efficiency of cellular respiration, requiring far more calories to generate much less energy and so tissues can no longer respond to the stress of even minimal physical exertion. The metabolic products of these pathways then more easily generate torporific substances like lactic acid to avert catastrophic over-metabolizing of already spare nutrients, and these substances tend to promote the development of cancer, rather than healing. Adding to all this the fact that a body in such a state also develops compromised immune and detoxification systems makes it more susceptible to bacterial and viral infection as well as a reduced ability to eliminate toxic compounds like pesticides, weed killer, and heavy metals which further exacerbate and promote cancer and other metabolic illnesses.
There is, of course, a place and circumstance where cardiovascular activity is fine, and the first rule of this is that exercise should always be fun. When athletic activity ceases to be fun it is a sign that the body is losing its ability to meet the demands of the stress being asked of it. In this case the activity should immediately be scaled back, or even stopped, to allow the body to recover, regenerate, and restore its supplies of nutrients and metabolic faculties. Failure to listen to the body in this state will lead to easy injuries, frequent illness, an increase in fatigue, and long-term the development of more serious metabolic issues like insomnia, and eventually cancer. Being that my sport took place within chlorinated water also deprived my body of iodine, which is extremely important for proper thyroid and endocrinological function and any swimmers who practice in pools should supplement iodine regularly (saline pools have chlorine too).
When athletic activity is fun, it is usually a sign that the body can handle it. But more important than a good time are the tools with which the body should be supplied to accomplish physical activity. Contrary to what you may feel or believe, pre-workout is absolutely toxic to the long term health of any athlete. Pre-workout does not provide a boost in energy and exercise capacity by supplying cellular functions with extra nutrients with which to function, but instead induces stress related compounds like cortisol and adrenaline, which function by catabolizing tissues like muscle to repurpose nutrients for more vital organs like the heart and brain, and nitric oxide which, while dilating blood vessels to deliver more oxygen and nutrients (nutrients which are coming from your own body), actually works to suppress mitochondrial function, because nitric oxide is associated with stress the body reacts to it by slowing the metabolic rate and shut down mitochondria, precisely to help spare nutrients and prevent the over-exhaustion of vulnerable cellular components. Studies show that long-term exposure to nitric oxide leads to highly reduced mitochondrial function, and this accounts for the rapid aesthetic deterioration and erectile dysfunction which occurs in many athletes, more especially the premature aging in today’s younger athletes who have had such unfettered and ubiquitous access to pre-workout products, most of which are specifically designed to raise nitric oxide. A healthy pre-workout routine which supports long-term cardiovascular health, prevents cancer development, and maintains youthful aesthetics and sexual libido begins with generous carbohydrates. If your body does not have carbs on which to run it will resort to catabolizing tissue, primarily your muscle but also vital organs like the heart. Consuming generous quantities of carbohydrates prevents the primary cause of muscle catabolism, which is simply a deficit of carbohydrates. Most healthy individuals can store carbohydrates as glycogen in the muscles and in the liver (do not assume you are healthy just because you’re an athlete), but if you have gone for any period of hours without eating, such as sleeping during the night, your body will have likely run out of glycogen, and waking up and exercising without any carbohydrate in your body will result in the immediate elevation of catabolic stress hormones which not only eat up your muscle but also have a destructive effect on the body as a whole, which is why athletes can drop dead of a heart-attack even when they are considered healthy, but also why long-term behaviors such as exercising with low-blood sugar and fasting contributes or even causes the development of cancer. I used to believe I was disciplined when I got up at 6 a.m. to hit the pool for a ninety-minute workout without eating even a drop of carbohydrate beforehand, unaware that I was actually cultivating cancer. Of course, minerals are just as important as carbs, and limited nutrient commercial products are not going to suffice or ever match what can be had from natural sources, so whole food carbohydrates are necessary and non-negotiable.
Some of the most important nutrients we need in order to be successfully athletic are the short-chain fatty acids which are generated by our gut microbiota from food, nutrients which are not found in commercial products or even in appreciable amounts in whole foods until they are met inside our intestinal tract by gut bacteria. The one exception to this is acetic acid in vinegar, as acetic acid is the precursor to many enzymes and steroids which help run our metabolic rate. I discovered the use of sodium acetate as an efficient way to supply acetic acid (this is discussed in my book and my blog), but products such as organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar can be a pro-health workout supplement, by providing extra acetic acid for the body to use in the formation of enzymes and steroids or repair of tissue and diminishment of lactic acid, but eating constantly and regularly must be practiced in order for the gut to supply continuous short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate and propionate. A deficiency of butyric acid as occurs in fasting, for instance, immediately stimulates the body to store carbs as fat instead of oxidizing them directly as energy. So exercising on an empty stomach can actually stimulate fat gain, not simply for the stress of exercising but also due to the rapid depletion of butyric acid both from a stoppage in supply and overuse through activity. Eating regularly, especially carbohydrates, is the number one way to prevent cancer development from cardiovascular exercise.
Unlike ibuprofen and acetaminophen, aspirin not only does not interfere with mitochondrial respiration, it enhances it, so aspirin should be the go-to medical support for athletic activity. Aspirin also speeds the clearance of lactic acid. In this way it also supports the growth and proliferation of mitochondria, musculature, and proper steroid function, supporting not only physical activity but recovery from it, easier muscle maintenance and youthful aesthetics, and more importantly the prevention of cancer and other metabolic diseases. Aspirin also protects vital organs like the heart, brain, and liver from environmental contaminants, pesticides, endocrine disruptors, and heavy metals. It’s not necessary to use in large amounts, just one a day is more than enough to provide protection from the stress of moderate exercise, so long as there is also a proper diet full of consistent, good nutrients, carbohydrates, and protein. The two effects of aspirin to watch out for are a depletion of vitamin K and the amino acid glycine, as aspirin increases mitochondrial function it can cause a deficiency in these nutrients which is not harmful in small amounts but is something to be cautious of. Long-term or excessive use of aspirin should be accompanied by a vitamin K supplement. Indication of low vitamin K is reflected by the darker color of urine, and light urine indicates vitamin K sufficiency. Glycine depletion is revealed by any stomach irritation following aspirin administration, and simply taking a small amount of supplemental glycine, gelatin, or a diet which is naturally high in glycine and good sources of protein are enough to prevent or reverse this symptom. Otherwise, aspirin is protective of the liver, muscles, and other parts of the body without the destructive risks of ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
Cardio can and should be a fun, invigorating pastime and not an arduous, dangerous exercise in self-discipline. Playing sports is a far better way to get cardio than running down the clock on a treadmill, especially because getting exposure to fresh air and vitamin D and thyroid promoting sunlight can also fuel and protect the body from the negative effects of exercise. But supporting your active lifestyle with a generous and consistent supply of safe nutrients, good fats like butter or coconut oil, carbohydrates, protein, and minerals, using aspirin for treatment and prevention of pains, aches, and excessive effort, and having some compassion for your body by not pushing too far can entirely prevent not only cancer but a lifetime of unpleasant and disruptive metabolic conditions.