Were You in Great Shape in Your Youth? That May Protect You From Some Cancers

Being actively involved in fitness activities in your youth can lead to lifelong hobbies, friends made through a sport, and an early passion for exercise. A new study finds it may also help stave off many forms of cancer decades into the future.

A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at health information from more than one million young men who underwent military conscription in Sweden between 1968 and 2005, comparing their cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) at the time of conscription with whether or not they developed cancer over an average follow-up period of 33 years. The findings showed that high fitness levels in youth were linked with a lower risk of developing nine types of cancer later.

Group of teenagers running through park

The study authors write, “These results have implications for public health policymaking, strengthening the incentive to promote health through improving CRF in youth.”

The study involved 1,078,000 service members who underwent exams when their military service started, covering their height, BMI, blood pressure, muscular strength, and cardiorespiratory fitness. In all, 365,874 had a lower level of fitness, 519,652 had a moderate level, and 340,952 were considered to be at a high level.

Seven percent of the study subjects developed cancer in the follow-up period. Among those with higher levels of fitness, compared to the lower level, there was a 42% lower risk of lung cancer, a 40% lower risk of liver cancer, a 39% lower risk of esophageal cancer, a 21% lower risk of stomach cancer, a 20% lower risk of kidney cancer, a 19% lower risk of head and neck cancer, an 18% lower risk of bowel cancer, a 12% lower risk of pancreatic cancer, and a 5% lower risk of rectal cancer.

Young runners crossing boardwalk

Those with lower fitness, however, were more apt to be obese and have a history of alcohol or substance misuse, factors that can impact cancer risk, at the time the initial tests were taken. Those with higher fitness levels were also 7% more likely to develop prostate cancer and 31% more apt to get skin cancer.

The researchers acknowledge some limitations of their study, including that it was observational and can’t draw conclusions on cause and effect, and that their data didn’t include information on possible contributing factors, like diet, alcohol intake, and smoking. Cardiorespiratory fitness over time was also not measured.

The team notes that their findings do suggest that public health efforts to reduce cancer should focus on aerobic activity that boosts cardiorespiratory fitness.

To read the whole study, click here.

Group of teenagers going for a run through park
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