A magic bullet against cancer?

New study of 1.4 million people finds exercise lowers overall cancer risk; significantly cuts risk of 13 cancer types.

Move more. Work out. Stay active. We hear every day that regular exercise is an important part of staying healthy.

The idea of exercise as a powerful cancer-fighter is nothing new. A number of studies have looked at this topic over the years, focusing mostly on cancers of the breast, lung and colon. Now, a major new study by the National Cancer Institute and published online in JAMA Internal Medicine found that exercise appears to have even more significant and wide-reaching cancer-fighting benefits than previously thought.

The researchers found regular physical activity can cut overall risk for developing cancer by about 7 percent. Looking at 26 types of cancer, they found significant risk reduction from exercise among a subset of 13 cancers (listed below), with cancer of the esophagus showing the greatest potential for reduced risk at 42 percent.

  • Esophageal cancer – 42 percent lower risk 
  • Liver cancer – 27 percent lower risk 
  • Lung cancer – 26 percent lower risk 
  • Kidney cancer – 23 percent lower risk 
  • Gastric cancer – 22 percent lower risk 
  • Endometrial cancer – 21 percent lower risk 
  • Myeloid leukemia – 20 percent lower risk 
  • Myeloma – 17 percent lower risk 
  • Colon cancer – 16 percent lower risk 
  • Head and neck cancer – 15 percent lower risk 
  • Rectal cancer – 13 percent lower risk 
  • Bladder cancer – 13 percent lower risk 
  • Breast cancer – 10 percent lower risk

“Part of our job to cure cancer and ease suffering is helping make people aware of how lifestyle choices and behaviors impact their cancer risk,” said Joe Flynn, M.D., physician-in-chief, Norton Cancer Institute. “This is a credible study that underscores the importance of staying active to help prevent cancer.”

Walking, running and swimming were among the moderate to vigorous activities reported by study participants. Researchers tallied the time people spent weekly in such activities and used that information to assess risks across a broad cross-section of people and their reported levels of activity.

For example, walking just 150 minutes per week qualifies as an “average level of effort” based on many recommended physical activity guidelines. Even this moderate level of activity provided cancer-fighting benefits. Cancer risk appeared to decline the more vigorously a person exercised, but even moderate exercise produced measurable positive outcomes.

The researchers found that the relationship between physical activity and lower cancer risk remained strong even when they made adjustments for other potential factors that could have accounted for the lower risk. For instance, they considered body mass index (BMI), diet and whether participants smoked.

“Obesity and poor diet are two big cancer scourges, so if exercise can be shown to provide some positive offset against these major risk factors, that’s really key,” Dr. Flynn said.

he scope of this new study that followed participants over 11 years and pooled information about various types of cancer from more than 1.4 million people makes it the most comprehensive look to date at how exercise can influence cancer risk.

That said, it’s good to remember that research rarely produces quick “magic bullet” answers. Experts agree there is still much to learn about the relationship between exercise and lowering cancer risk.

In the meantime, it’s hard to argue that we can’t benefit from regular physical activity.


Learn more about your cancer risk by taking our free online health risk assessments. Share your results with your doctor to develop a plan to stay healthy for a lifetime.


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