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Cancer seems to be a common topic in today’s world. We’ve all likely been affected by it somehow, whether it be personally, a family member, a friend, or even just a stranger’s story that captivated us.

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Research continues to uncover ways we can prevent the disease, along with ways we can survive it, if it does, in fact, become a personal reality.

Health researchers have long known that athletes have a lower risk of cancer than the rest of us, with studies showing that they suffer markedly fewer cancers of the lungs, kidneys, breasts, ovaries, and cervix. But why?

Because a healthy physical body is so necessary for athletes to perform well, if at all, they maintain a healthy diet and are less likely to smoke. But there’s even more than that.

Evidence now reveals that exercise itself protects our bodies against cancer in complex ways. And for patients who have cancer, exercise can significantly increase their chances of survival. Danish researchers credit the adrenaline to this theory. As it gets released when we exercise, it provides a protective effect.

Doctors at Copenhagen University Hospital injected cancer cells into two groups of mice, with one group having activity wheels permitting them to run as much as they liked. The other group had no exercise other than roaming about their cages.

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According to lead study author and oncologist Dr. Pernille Hojman, when the mice were exposed to a chemical known to cause liver cancer, three-quarters of the non-exercisers, but only a third of the exercise group did as well. And the tumors of the running-wheel mice were 60 percent smaller than the sedentary mice.

Furthermore, the tumors in the exercising mice contained infection-combating cells—Dr. Pernille Hojman calls this defense cell a natural killer cell that works to fight cancers in the exercising mice. She attributes adrenaline for powering the natural killer cells, while another exercise-induced chemical, interleukin-6, helps these immune cells to target tumors.

The team of doctors also injected adrenaline and interleukin-6 into cancerous sedentary mice, to which the rodents’ immune systems attacked the tumors like they would had the mice been exercising regularly.

Dr. Hojman believes the study’s findings prove that combined hormone therapy has the potential to help people who are too old or too ill to be active to regain some cancer-fighting benefits.

Exercising on a regular basis also aids in weight loss and the loss of body fat, which may work to reduce cancer risk as well. Several studies have even found a link between regular physical activity and a reduced risk of cancers of the prostate, lung, and lining of the uterus (endometrial cancer).

Dr. Liam Bourke, the principal research fellow at Sheffield Hallam University, is leading a study to see if men with early, slow-growing prostate cancer can use exercise to delay the progress of their disease. He says, in general, we haven’t reached the utmost understanding of how exercise can fight cancer.

“There are indications from studies of humans that indicate that exercise may benefit the genes that control cell replication,” he explains. “Cancer occurs when the process of cell replication goes awry.”

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