More than 46,000 cancer cases in the United States might be prevented each year if almost all of us walked for about 45 minutes a day, according to an eye-opening new study of inactivity, exercise and malignancies.
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The study, which analysed cancer incidence and the physical activity habits of nearly 600,000 American men and women in every state and the District of Columbia, found that about three per cent of common cancers in the United States are strongly linked to inactivity. Something as simple as getting up and moving, the findings suggest, might help tens of thousands of us avoid developing cancer in the coming years.
Already we have plenty of evidence that exercise affects cancer risk. In past experiments, physical activity has changed the immune system in ways that amplify the body’s ability to fight tumour growth. Exercise can, for example, ramp up the activity of certain immune cells known to target cancer cells. Exercise has also been associated with longer survival in people with certain forms of cancer, possibly by boosting levels of inflammatory substances that inhibit cancer cell growth. A 2016 review in JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that our risks for at least 13 types of cancer, including breast, bladder, blood and rectal cancers, drop substantially if we are physically active, and a separate 2019 report calculated that those reductions could be as high as 69 per cent.
At the same time, many studies show that being inactive raises our risks for various cancers. But scientists know surprisingly little about how those risks translate into actual cases or, more concretely, how many people each year are likely to develop cancers closely linked to moving too little.
So, for the new study, which was published in October in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers with the American Cancer Society and Emory University in Atlanta used a sophisticated type of statistical analysis called P.A.F. to measure the links between cancer and inactivity. P.A.F. stands for population-attributable fraction and is a mathematical way for scientists to estimate how many occurrences of a disease – or drug responses or other biological reactions – within a larger population seem to be the result of a particular behaviour or other factor. It can tell us, in essence, how many annual cases of, say, colon cancer – out of all the known instances of the disease each year – can reasonably be laid at the feet of smoking or alcohol or fatty foods or over-sitting.