Inactivity and Cancer: A Closer Look

As we highlighted yesterday, the British medical journal The Lancet has released a series of papers on inactivity and its link to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The authors of one paper used statistical methods to derive what they consider very conservative estimates of how many of these diseases could be prevented globally if everyone became more active (defined as meeting the WHO guidelines on physical activity, which match the Federal Government’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans).

The non-communicable diseases in question? Coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes … and cancer. Specifically, breast and colon cancers.

All of us at AICR, who have been working to raise awareness about the link between physical activity and lower cancer risk for many years, welcome these papers. It’s gratifying, given the strong evidence presented in the AICR/WCRF expert report and that continues to mount in the AICR/WCRF Continuous Update Project (CUP), to finally see cancer taking its place alongside heart disease and diabetes on such a high-profile list.

Last year, at the AICR Annual Research Conference, we released estimates of the number of US cancers linked to inactivity. There are several ways to calculate such estimates, and the Lancet team used different statistical methods to arrive at their numbers, but the results are strikingly similar, and make it clearer than ever that being inactive has a major impact on cancer, on par with obesity and smoking.

Dr. Christine Friedenreich, of Alberta Health Services-Cancer Care, a leading researcher on the activity-cancer link, presented at last year’s AICR Annual Conference. She finds the Lancet estimates impressive.

“This is important science,” she says. “The Lancet team applied a lot of rigor, and these estimates are solid. And as the authors point out, these numbers likely represent the lower threshold of how many cancers could be prevented by becoming more active.”

Dr. Friedenreich is pleased to see the medical community embracing the research on the inactivity-cancer link. “Now cancer is accepted as one extremely important non-communicable disease related to how much we move,” she says, “and hopefully this will motivate doctors to talk with their patients, motivate individuals to get more active, and motivate health policy makers as well.”

AICR Director of Research Susan Higginbotham, PhD, RD, notes that the evidence is stronger than ever that moving more protects against cancer. But she reminds us that it’s only a part of an overall lifestyle that includes other factors that have been shown to lower cancer risk: healthy diet, staying at a healthy weight and not smoking. “Those factors work together — as soon as you start combining them, cancer risk drops even further.”


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