This Kind of Exercise Can Reduce Men’s Cancer Risk, Says New Study

A uniquely compelling new study suggests fitness in your years of youth has the power to prevent numerous cancers down the road.

There are so many health benefits of regular exercise, and the cardiovascular health benefits often get the most attention—but a growing body of research is highlighting a link between physical fitness and lower cancer risk. Now, a new study from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden published in August 2023 in the peer-reviewed British Journal of Sports Medicine reveals a striking correlation between cardiorespiratory fitness in the teenage years and a lowered risk of several cancers in adulthood.

Cardiorespiratory fitness refers to how well the heart and lungs work together to provide energy during prolonged physical activity and to clear away fatigue-causing products afterward. This fitness is often built through aerobic exercises like running, cycling, and swimming—all worthy pastimes, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests cardiorespiratory wellness is a key aspect of overall physical health.

Aron Onerup, MD, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Gothenburg and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, was one of the study’s authors. In a press release, Dr. Onerup highlighted the study’s importance, stating, “A good level of fitness seems to be able to reduce the risk of many types of cancer, as well as leaving individuals better equipped for successful treatment results if they develop cancer.”

Here’s more background that might inspire you to stay moving.

How the study worked

The research team analyzed data from a massive cohort of over a million Swedish men. All these individuals underwent mandatory military enlistment between 1968 and 2005, with an average age hovering around 18 years.

Because the study spanned several decades and used such a large sample of people, its findings are considered uniquely credible.

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Cardiorespiratory fitness today, lower risk of cancers tomorrow

According to the research, physical fitness in youth seems to be a fierce adversary against several cancers. The study noted that men with commendable fitness levels at 18 showed significantly reduced risks in later years of developing cancers of the following physiological sites:

  • the head, neck and esophagus
  • stomach
  • pancreas
  • liver
  • colon
  • rectum
  • kidney
  • lungs

The gastrointestinal tract, in particular, reaped the benefits of early-life fitness. Men who were fit in their youth experienced around a 40% lower risk of esophageal and liver cancers. Cancers of the stomach and colon followed suit, with a roughly 20% risk reduction.

However, the narrative took an intriguing twist when the study revealed higher diagnosis rates for prostate and skin cancers among fitter individuals. A plausible explanation from the researchers is that men with higher fitness levels tend to be more proactive about their health, opting for regular screenings that help lead to earlier detection of prostate cancer and skin lesions so they can be treated before they progress or metastasize. (Note: If you enjoy exercising outdoors, it’s always wise to wear sunscreen, including on your scalp, along with sun-protective clothing.)

A significant portion of the aerobically fit individuals were likely non-smokers, which might help explain a reduced lung cancer risk.

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A longitudinal commitment to fitness

The ramifications of these findings can inform public health strategies. Maria Åberg, MD, professor in general medicine at Sahlgrenska Academy at the university, says these results should spur younger generations to embrace physical activity.

However, while the findings champion the merits of early fitness, they also serve as a reminder of its enduring importance. Mats Börjesson, MD, professor in sports physiology at the university and senior author of the study, warns against letting the demands of life slow down your exercise routine over time. He stresses: “Lifestyle habits are established early, and often remain stable throughout life. The study should not be interpreted as suggesting that it is enough to exercise when young. We believe that it is also of great importance later in life.”

The University of Gothenburg’s study makes it clear: While early-life fitness can be a shield against many cancers, health is a life-long pursuit. To truly harness the benefits of exercise, remain committed to physical fitness for as long as you can move.

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Medically reviewed by Latoya Julce RN, BSN, on November 17, 2023

Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO
Tricia is a doctor of osteopathy with experience in primary healthcare. She received her medical degree from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and conducts clinical research in Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, as she is motivated by the desire to contribute to the development of innovative treatments and therapies. She is also a certified lifestyle coach for the CDC-recognized National Diabetes Prevention Program, empowering individuals to make lasting, healthy lifestyle changes. Dr. Varacallo loves to write— especially about health, wellness, and grief. Drawing from her own experiences of loss and caregiving, she loves to offer support and encouragement to those navigating their own grief journeys. Outside of her professional life, she enjoys traveling and exploring the sunny beaches of Florida with her significant other, always ready for their next adventure.