Effect of Exercise & Healthy Diet on Cancer Risk

By Rahul Gupta, PhD

A large study has confirmed that exercise lowers the risk of many different types of cancer. It also quantifies the risk reduction. The analysis demonstrated that we are largely responsible for our own risks in regards to cancer, despite the worries about chemicals, pollution, or other environmental factors. According to the research finding, more than 40 percent of cancer incidences and over 50 percent of cancer deaths could be prevented if people made simple changes to their lifestyle, including altering their diet and adding daily exercise.

According to JAMA Oncology, the team at Harvard Medical School concluded that more than 40 percent of cancer diagnoses and over 50 percent of cancer deaths could have been prevented if those people gave up smoking and heavy drinking, maintained their body weight, and added 30 minutes of exercise every day. The Harvard team used data from long-term studies of about 140,000 health professionals who provided biennial health updates.

“Not surprisingly, these figures came out 40 to 70 percent higher considering the Caucasian portion of the races, which has a much worse lifestyle pattern than our cohorts,” according to Dr. Mingyang Song and Dr. Edward Giovannucci, as reported by CNBC.

The researchers divided the 140,000 people into two groups; those with a healthy lifestyle and the rest. The healthy lifestyle definition was based on multiple studies demonstrating which personal habits are linked with higher or lower cancer risks. That included nonsmokers, light drinkers (one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men), weight watchers, and those performing over an hour of vigorous exercise or 2.5 hours of moderate exercise a week. The study found that heavy drinking was associated with raised rates of colon, liver, and breast cancer; obesity linked to a higher risk of esophageal, colon, and pancreatic cancer; and up to 90% of lung cancer deaths were found to be a linked to smoking.

According to Dr. Graham Colditz, chief of the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the majority of the cancers are preventable. 80-90 percent of lung and oropharyngeal cancer are due to smoking, and 60 percent colorectal and bladder cancers are lifestyle-related. Dr. Graham Colditz has been appointed in the federal advisory committee for the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, led by Vice President Joe Biden, according to CBS News.


Colditz emphasizes that the key result of the study is that our behaviors may be just as important, if not more important, than circumstantial or environmental factors in leading to a cancer diagnosis. When certain types of cancer are concerned, lifestyle choices make a big difference.

The National Cancer Institute looked at dozens of cancer studies in the U.S. and Europe, compared the people who exercised the most of the study participants, and compiled their findings into a single analysis. The study based on 1.4 million people clearly and unequivocally demonstrated the benefit of exercise by lowering the rate of cancer in these categories:

Esophageal cancer risk reduced by 42%

Liver cancer risk reduced by 27%

Lung cancer risk reduced by 26%

Kidney cancer risk reduced by 23%

Stomach cancer risk reduced by 22%

Endometrial cancer risk reduced by 21%

Myeloid leukemia risk reduced by 20%

Myeloma risk reduced by 17%

Colon cancer risk reduced by 16%

Head and neck cancer risk reduced by 16%

Rectal cancer risk reduced by 13%

Bladder cancer risk reduced by 13%

Breast cancer risk reduced by 10%

On average, the study participants who did not exercise as much were slightly overweight. While obesity is a risk factor for cancer, exercise lowered the cancer risk even for obese people.

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