“Although the data vary by different cancer types, there is a consistent trend suggesting that moderate daily exercise has a beneficial effect on preventing certain cancers. If you are a reasonably healthy adult, your should exercise regularly.”
Let’s look at the relationship of exercise and selected cancers. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has done a nice job of summarizing:
While the amount of risk reduction varies among studies (20-80%), most suggest that 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to high-intensity exercise per day lowers breast cancer risk. Women who are physically active throughout their life appear to benefit the most, but those who increase physical activity after menopause also fare better than inactive women.1
Research suggests that people who increase their physical activity can lower the chance of developing colon cancer by 30 to 40% relative to sedentary adults.1,2 A decrease in colon cancer risk can be achieved regardless of body mass index (BMI) and people who are most active benefit the most. There is insufficient evidence of a protective effect of physical activity on the risk of rectal cancer (a protective effect was seen in some case-control studies, but not in cohort studies).3
Endometrial, Lung and Ovarian Cancer
A handful of studies have suggested that women who are physically active have a 20-40% reduced risk of endometrial cancer compared to those who don’t exercise.1 Higher levels of physical activity seem to also protect against lung cancer (up to 20% reduction in risk), particularly among men.1Although less consistent, research suggests that physical activity possibly reduces the risk of ovarian and prostate cancer.
What about Other Cancers?
While observational data on the benefits of exercise for prevention of the types of cancers listed above are fairly consistent, evidence of the effects of exercise on prevention of any other type of cancer either is either insufficient or inconsistent.2,4
Prostate cancer is one disease in which the data are not consistent, however prostate cancer is a heterogeneous disease and risk factor associations for total non-aggressive disease are different from aggressive / lethal disease. Most population based studies show similar findings, with little effect of exercise on overall incidence of prostate cancer but lower risk of aggressive prostate cancers for those with the highest levels of VIGOROUS activity (rather than any type of activity). In the Health Professionals Follow-up Study men 65 years or older who engaged in vigorous physical activity, such as running, jogging, biking, swimming or tennis at least three hours per week had a 67% lower risk of advanced prostate cancer and 74% lower risk of fatal prostate cancer.5
Conflicting data for other malignancies
For example, one recent study found no association between physical activity and risk of developing gastric, rectal, pancreatic, bladder, testicular, kidney and hematological cancers.4 In contrast, a pooled analysis of data from prospective trials with 1.4 million participants found that physical activity was linked to lower risk of 13 cancers: esophageal, lung, kidney, gastric, endometrial, myeloid leukemia, myeloma, colon, head and neck, rectal, bladder, and breast.6Interestingly, leisure-time physical activity was associated with a higher risk of melanoma (presumably due to time spent outdoors) and prostate cancer, although it is not clear from these data whether that association was with nonaggressive or aggressive prostate cancer.
While we wait for confirmation and clarity on the role of exercise in preventing all the 200+ types of cancer – should doctors prescribe exercise? The answer is simple: yes, because evidence of the protective role of exercise is already strong for some of the most common cancers.
- Lee I, Oguma Y. Physical activity. In: Schottenfeld D, Fraumeni JF, editors. Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Slattery, ML. Physical activity and colorectal cancer. Sports Medicine 2004; 34(4): 239–252.
- Pham NM, et al. Physical activity and colorectal cancer risk: an evaluation based on a systematic review of epidemiologic evidence among the Japanese population. Jpn J Clin Oncol. 2012 Jan;42(1):2-13.
- Friedenreich CM, Neilson HK, Lynch BM. Eur J Cancer. State of the epidemiological evidence on physical activity and cancer prevention. 2010 Sep;46(14):2593-604.
- Giovannucci E, Liu Y, Leitzmann MF, et al. A prospective study of physical activity and incident and fatal prostate cancer. Arch Intern Med. 2005; 165(9):1005-1010.
- Moore SC, Lee IM, Weiderpass E, et al. Association of Leisure-Time Physical Activity With Risk of 26 Types of Cancer in 1.44 Million Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Jun 1;176(6):816-25.
I’m Dr. Michael Hunter. Of course, the disclaimer: Do not begin an exercise program without input from an appropriate medical professional. Many can simply start with a brisk walk for 30 minutes daily, 5 days per week. Have a wonderful day!