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More leisure-time activity linked to lower risk of 13 cancers

Tell patients that association applies regardless of body size and smoking for most cancers

Louise Prime

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Engaging in higher levels of leisure-time physical activity was associated with a significant reduction in the risk of 13 out of 26 cancers, according to ‘exciting’ international research* published online first in JAMA Internal Medicine. The authors of the large study urged doctors to advise inactive adults that these findings applied regardless of body size or smoking history. They also said their results support the promotion of physical activity as a “key component of population-wide cancer prevention and control efforts”.

A global team of doctors and scientists, including from Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge, designed their study to determine the association of leisure-time physical activity with the incidence of 26 common types of cancer, as well as whether body size and/or smoking affected any associations. They pooled data from 12 European and US cohorts, including a total of more than 1.4 million men and women aged 19-98 years, looking at self-reported physical activity from 1987-2004.

During a median of 11 years’ follow up, 186,932 cancers occurred in the participants. Being more physically active was associated overall with a 7% lower risk of total cancer, compared with being less active – but this varied for different types of cancer.

Higher levels of physical activity were associated with a relative reduction in cancer risk (compared with lower levels of physical activity) for 13 of the 26 cancers: oesophageal adenocarcinoma (42% lower risk); liver (27% lower); lung (26%); kidney (23%); gastric cardia (22%); endometrial (21%); myeloid leukaemia (20%); myeloma (17%); colon (16%); head and neck (15%), rectal (13%); bladder (13%); and breast (10%). Most of the reported associations were generally similar regardless of smoking history (except for lung cancer), or whether people were normal weight or overweight/obese. Physical activity was also associated with a 5% increase in relative risk of prostate cancer and a 27% higher risk of malignant melanoma; but this reached statistical significance only in those areas of the US with higher levels of solar UV radiation.

The researchers pointed out that they could not fully exclude the effect of diet, smoking and other factors on their results, and of errors in participants’ recall of their physical activity level. Nevertheless, they concluded: “These findings support promoting physical activity as a key component of population-wide cancer prevention and control efforts.” They added: “Health care professionals counselling inactive adults should emphasise that most of these associations were evident regardless of body size or smoking history, supporting broad generalisability of findings.”

The authors of a linked commentary** described the study’s findings as “exciting” because they underline the value of leisure-time physical activity as a potential risk reduction strategy to decrease the cancer burden. They wrote: “They demonstrate that high vs. low levels of physical activity engagement are associated with reduced risk of 13 cancer types (including three of the top four leading cancers among men and women worldwide).”


* Moore SC, Lee I-Min, 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. Published online May 16, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.1548.

** McCullough ME, McClain KM, Gammon MD. The promise of leisure-time physical activity to reduce risk of cancer development. JAMA Intern Med. Published online May 16, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.1521.

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