Staying fit while young linked with 40% lower risk of cancer, major study finds

Staying fit can reduce your risk of cancer
Staying fit can reduce your risk of cancer Copyright Canva
By Luke Hurst
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Analysis of data from more than a million men revealed a strong association between good cardiorespiratory fitness and lower risk of developing cancer.

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Staying fit while young could result in a 40 per cent lower chance of developing a number of cancers, a major long term study has found.

The research, which involved analysis of data from more than a million men, revealed the strong association between good cardiorespiratory fitness at a younger age with lower risk of getting cancer.

People with good cardiorespiratory fitness are able to do aerobic exercise such as running, cycling and swimming for extended periods of time, because they have healthy heart and lung capacity.

While it’s known to be associated with lower risk of certain cancers, few long-term studies of multiple types of cancers have been reported - until now.

Publishing the findings in the British Journal of Sports Medicine on Tuesday, the researchers found strong cardiorespiratory fitness was associated with a lower chance of developing cancers of the head and neck, oesophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, bowel, kidney, and lung.

They used Swedish registry data on military conscripts who started their military service between 1968 and 2005, as the conscripts underwent standard physical tests at the start of their service, when they were aged between 16 and 25.

The tests included height, weight, blood pressure, muscular strength and cardiorespiratory fitness.

Higher cardio fitness, lower cancer risk

The findings show those with low levels of cardiorespiratory fitness were slightly more likely to be obese, more likely to have a history of alcohol and substance misuse, and to have parents with lower educational attainment than conscripts with a higher fitness level.

The final analysis found 84,117 of the 1,078,000 men in the study developed cancer in at least one site during an average monitoring period of 33 years.

Compared with men with a low level of fitness at conscription, higher cardiorespiratory fitness was linearly associated with a lower risk of developing specific types of cancer.

A total of 365,874 conscripts had a low level of cardiorespiratory fitness; 519,652 had a moderate level; and 340,952 had a high level.

Among the results, the higher level of cardiorespiratory fitness was associated with a 39 per cent lower risk of oesophagus cancer, a 40 per cent lower risk of liver cancer, and a 42 per cent lower risk of lung cancer.

The higher level of fitness was, however, also linked to a 31 per cent higher risk of skin cancer, which the researchers suggest could be due to increased exposure to sunlight.

“This study shows that higher fitness in healthy young men is associated with a lower hazard of developing nine out of 18 investigated site-specific cancers, with the most clinically relevant hazard rates in the gastrointestinal tract,” the authors wrote.

“These results could be used in public health policymaking, further strengthening the incentive for promoting interventions aimed at increasing [cardiorespiratory fitness] in youth”.

While they note it is just an observational study so no concrete conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, the researchers point out the findings are reflected in the American Society of Clinical Oncology guidelines on exercise during cancer treatment.

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