Fitness may lower risk of many solid tumours

People with good cardiorespiratory fitness in their youth appear to be at reduced risk of many forms of cancer, according to the findings of a major study published today.

The new study was carried out by researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Findings are reported today in British Journal of Sports Medicine.

In order to assess the link between cardiorespiratory fitness and site-specific cancers, the team analysed information from 1,078,000 men in a Swedish population-based study of men in military conscription from 1968 to 2005. The men’s fitness was tested at conscription.

During follow-up of about 33 years, 84,117 of the men developed cancer in at least one site.

Higher fitness was linked to a 19% lower risk of cancer in the head and neck, a 39% lower risk of oesophageal cancer, a 21% lower risk of stomach cancer, and an 18% lower risk of pancreas cancer. Rates of liver, colon, rectum, kidney and lung cancer were also lower.

Conversely there seemed to be a raised rate of diagnosis with prostate cancer and skin cancer.

The team write: “We report a number of protective associations between higher cardiorespiratory fitness in healthy young men and the subsequent hazard of site-specific cancers, some of which have not previously been reported in relation to cardiorespiratory fitness or physical activity.

“These results have implications for public health policymaking, strengthening the incentive to promote health through improving cardiorespiratory fitness in youth.”

However, the researchers point to limitations of the study because of a lack of information on risk factors such as diet, alcohol intake and smoking, among others.

Researcher Professor Mats Börjesson of the University of Gothenburg added: “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.”

Fellow researcher Dr Aron Onerup, of St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, USA, said: “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,” he explains. “The results reinforce the arguments for working to establish healthy habits that lead to good fitness levels early in life.”

Onerup, A. et al. Associations between cardiorespiratory fitness in youth and the incidence of site-specific cancer in men: a cohort study with register linkage. British Journal of Sports Medicine 16 August 2023; doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2022-106617


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