Leisure-time physical activity such as walking, running, or swimming is associated with a reduced risk of developing 13 different types of cancer, a new study reports.

Past research has shown that the benefits of physical activity can include weight control; strengthening bones and joints; and reducing the risk for heart disease and other disorders. An international research team decided to take a close look at the links between physical activity and different types of cancer.

The researchers pooled data from 12 studies that together followed 1.44 million people over time to assess cancer risk. Study participants ranged from 19 to 98 years old. They were surveyed about time spent in moderate to vigorous leisure-time physical activities. The scientists took into account factors such as age, smoking, alcohol use, diet, and education.

During a follow-up of about a decade, 187,000 new cases of cancer arose. People with the highest level of leisure-time physical activity had a reduced risk for 13 of 26 types of cancer compared to those with the lowest level of activity.

Those with the highest activity had a 20% lower risk for 7 cancer types: esophageal adenocarcinoma, liver, lung, kidney, gastric cardia, endometrial, and myeloid leukemia. They also had a 10-20% lower risk for myeloma and cancers of the head and neck, rectum, bladder, and breast.

Leisure-time physical activity was also linked to a higher risk of malignant melanoma, likely due to greater sun exposure.

“Leisure-time physical activity is known to reduce risks of heart disease and risk of death from all causes. Our study demonstrates that it’s also associated with lower risks of many types of cancer,” says study lead author Dr. Steven Moore of NIH. “Health care professionals counseling inactive adults should promote physical activity as a component of a healthy lifestyle and cancer prevention.”

Contributed by: NIH Office of Communications and Public Liaison
Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
Contributors: Vicki Contie, Alan Defibaugh (illustrations), Claire Donnelly, and Tianna Hicklin.