Study: Exercise May Reduce Your Risk of Getting 13 Different Cancers

A massive, multi-institution study looked at the association between physical activity and cancer.


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Conveniently coinciding with free fitness season, a massive new study is giving you yet another reason to get moving.

According to the study’s findings, frequent physical activity may lower your risk of developing 13 different types of cancer. Exercise seemed to have the largest impact on developing esophageal cancer (a 42 percent lower risk), but it may also lessen the odds of getting liver, lung, kidney, stomach, endometrial, colon, head and neck, breast, bladder, and rectal cancer; leukemia; and myeloma.

The study, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, was carried out by researchers from a wide range of institutions, including Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It examined 1.4 million subjects, who self-reported their physical activity patterns between 1987 and 2004. The researchers then compared those trends with the development of 26 different cancers during the study follow-up period.

The results overwhelmingly endorse exercising, but frequent physical activity slightly raised the risk of getting melanoma, probably because active people tend to spend more time outdoors. Strangely, it also marginally bumped subjects’ risk of getting prostate cancer—a phenomenon with “no known biological rationale,” according to the study, but that may be tied to physically active men waiting to get checked for disease.

While the scope and findings of the study are hard to ignore, it’s important to note that self-reported data can be skewed. Plus, adjusting for body mass index lessened the association between exercise and the formation of three types of cancer, likely because obesity is a known risk factor for some types of disease. Adjusting for smoking, unsurprisingly, also changed the equation for lung cancer.

Still, to make a long story short, the study echoes what you already know: You really need to get to the gym tonight.