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What You Need to Know About Preventing Cancer Today

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We asked Colleen Doyle, RD, director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society, to help us make sense of the ACS's recent findings that though most of us know eating healthy and staying active will reduce our cancer risk, very few of us are actually doing those things. Here she addresses the biggest question of all: How can we change our ways to get healthier?

Eighty-three percent of people say they believe that eating healthy can reduce cancer risk, and 62 percent think exercising regularly is also preventive -- yet only about 30 percent are actually doing it. That's according to a brand-new survey by the American Cancer Society (ACS) of more than 2,000 adults, called the "Great American Eat Right Challenge." What's up with that? FITNESS asks Colleen Doyle, RD, director of nutrition and physical activity for the ACS, to make sense of the findings and address the biggest question of all: How can we change our ways to get healthier?

FITNESS: Why did ACS decide to do this survey?

Doyle: One of the purposes is to motivate people to make healthy lifestyle changes. The science has gotten so strong about the impact of obesity, physical activity, and diet on cancer risk, but people still aren't eating the recommended 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables daily. Most are not meeting the minimum requirement of 30 minutes of exercise at least five times a week.

FITNESS: The majority of poll respondents said they believe that eating healthy and exercising can reduce cancer risk, yet most aren't doing it. Why is there such a disconnect?

Doyle: There are a lot of environmental factors involved, such as living in a neighborhood where you can walk and feel safe, and having grocery stores close by that carry a variety of fruits and vegetables. Financial concerns are a big one -- 32 percent of people said gyms are too expensive. Twenty-four percent said fruits and vegetables cost too much. Then there's the issue with having a busy lifestyle -- 18 percent of people said they don't have time to exercise.

FITNESS: How can we change people's attitudes and convince them that eating right and exercising are easier and more do-able than they think?

Doyle: We have to give them practical advice and creative solutions. For instance, take the time to plan out your meals early in the week. I've got two young children, I work full time, and I travel a lot for my job, so I always look for ways to get exercise into my day. I take the stairs every chance I can. I do leg lifts when I'm sitting down. Schedule workouts as you would any other appointment. Fifty-two percent of people surveyed said if they had one extra hour in the day, they'd spend it with family and friends. Why not find an activity you like to do, and do it with them? Instead of watching TV together, go for a walk after dinner.

FITNESS: What's the number-one thing each of us can do to stay healthy and cancer-free?

Doyle: Control your weight -- and you can do that by exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet.

FITNESS: You call your survey the "Great American Eat Right Challenge." Are you starting a campaign to get people to do just that -- eat right?

Doyle: Yes. It involves awareness about portion control, limiting added sugars, reducing alcohol consumption, and eating the right amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Society is a big part of this, too. ACS has initiated a larger advocacy program that's working with schools and job sites to make sure cafeterias serve fruits and vegetables and vending machines have better snack options. Also, neighborhoods need grocery stores that carry a variety of quality fruits and vegetables. We're working toward having these things become the norm, so that they're available to everyone.

Also, in January of next year, ACS will launch an interactive journal online where users can track their daily food intake and exercise and receive feedback to encourage their progress. If they're maintaining their weight and meeting their goals they'll receive motivational messages. If not, they'll get suggestions on how to improve. The goal is to give people tools to do the things they already know are good for them.


Originally published on, August 2008.


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