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August 25, 2023

How beneficial is physical activity? Even short bursts may reduce risk of cancer

New research underscores the effect of personal behavior on health. It's time to consider exercise an investment that yields a longer – and healthier – life

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Physical Activity Cancer Bruno Nascimento/

Doing short, vigorous bursts of physical activity – like climbing stairs – each day may reduce the risk of cancer, according to a new study from Australia. Its findings underscore the impact that personal behaviors have on health.

The power of exercise on our health is underscored by a recent Australian study that showed that as little as 4 to 5 minutes a day of vigorous, short bursts of physical activity, like climbing stairs, can substantially lower cancer risk.

The research is significant on its own merits, but in the context of historically higher rates of cancer among older adults, and a recently published study that revealed cancer rates are increasing among Americans in their 30s, the results take on added meaning. When you consider that cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease, and Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware all surpass the national average for cancer rates, the case for exercise of any type becomes quite compelling.

Researchers from The University of Sydney tracked 22,398 adults, with an average age of 62, over a seven-year period. None of them regularly exercised. The study showed that getting 3.4 to 3.6 minutes of vigorous bursts of physical activity intermittently each day was linked to a 17-18% reduction in overall cancer risk. People who got 4.5 minutes were 31-32% less likely to develop cancer. 

These short bursts of physical activity can come from vigorous housework, carrying heavy shopping items around the store, bursts of power walking and playing high-energy games with children. 

The researchers said that when people forego exercise because they find it unappealing, they are placing themselves at higher risk of cancer. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about half of Americans meet the U.S. guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate exercise and two muscle strengthening workouts per week. 

By demonstrating that incorporating physical activity into daily life can produce meaningful results, the researchers seek to help lower the risk of cancer and compensate for the poor performance in meeting the guidelines.

Cancer growth in young people

Now normally, having made my point about the importance of healthy behavior among the 50-plus set, I would move on to share some related details or a personal story. However, in this case, there is an important connection that I need to share as it may apply to your children and certainly those you know who have yet to meet the 50-year mark.

Just about a week ago, JAMA Open Network published a study showing that cancer among older adults had declined, but that there was an alarming increase among younger adults. The increase was particularly notable among women and people ages 30 to 39. Gastrointestinal, endocrine and breast cancer had the greatest increases. The news left scientists asking why and looking for the reason for behind the increase.

Scientists at the National Cancer Center have suggested that there are links between cancer and several lifestyle factors including obesity, alcohol consumption and smoking.

Dr. Otis Brawley, an oncology and epidemiology professor at Johns Hopkins University, offered his theories on the cause of the rising rates, which back-up the National Cancer Center studies.

"My gut suspicion is that a large part of this trend is lifestyle, or it's driven by increased caloric consumption, increased obesity and not enough exercise," Brawley told CNN. Also, in step with the National Cancer Center, Brawley said, "we now think about 6% or so of cancers in the United States are due to alcohol consumption, especially binge drinking."

Brawley summarized his advice for lowering cancer risk. He recommended a healthy weight, exercise, a good diet with fruits and vegetables every day, and limited processed foods. That's a practice good for all age groups. When considering the Australian findings that show how minimal amounts of exercise can reduce cancer risk, all the research is pointing to healthy living as the key to avoiding cancer.

More reasons to exercise

Now, while the study concerning younger adults also noted a decrease in cancer among older adults, there is still a significant body of research that suggests getting older is the most significant risk factor for developing cancer. 

Beyond the impact of one’s lifestyle and exposure to occupational hazards, the human immune system becomes weaker with age and is less able to kill cancerous cells before they multiply. That said, the Australian study provides further evidence that healthy practices can go a long way to reducing cancer risk.

One final reason for living healthy is the incidence of cancer in the tri-state region. According to the National Cancer Center and the CDC, in 2019 among all races and ethnicities, all three states were above the national cancer rate of 442.3 cases per 100,000 people. New Jersey's rate was 481.9 and Pennsylvania was at 467.4. Delaware's rate was 457.8. Now, the Delaware Valley is a wonderful place to live with many qualities, and New Jersey has always been my home, but these statistics offer further evidence for living healthy.

Seize the opportunity

Cancer is a scary word. Certainly, you would think that if there was anything that could be done do to reduce the chances of such a frightening diagnosis, people would seize the opportunity, but they don’t. 

As I mentioned, only half of Americans meet the U.S. exercise guidelines, and in a frequently referenced study from 2016, the Mayo Clinic determined that only 2.7% of Americans lead a healthy lifestyle. That means they follow U.S. guidelines for diet and exercise, do not smoke, and have a healthy body mass index. Since then, many have questioned the use of BMI as an appropriate measure of fitness, but the other measures are without challenge.

The point is simple and straightforward. Our personal behaviors – the commitment we make to our health practices – can have a meaningful impact on our overall health. It is an opportunity to live longer and reduce the risk of disease. These recent studies show that the impact is there when it comes to cancer and those in middle age. Of concern is that it looks like younger adults should consider exercise as well to mitigate their rising cancer rates.

The evidence on the benefits of healthy behavior keeps pouring and, in this case, for both men and women. Are you ready to seize the moment?

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.

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