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Being active improves cancer survival odds

Evidence continues to grow that physical activity after a cancer diagnosis is linked to a better survival outlook.

Being physically active is now recognised as a potent ‘cancer-preventing’ habit. Some estimates link regular physical activity to as much as a 20 to 40% lower risk of colon and post-menopausal breast cancer and a potential benefit in lowering prostate cancer risk too.

Being active also comes with the added bonus of improving fitness, keeping bones healthy, keeping body weight in check and reducing stress.

An evolving field of research is looking at the role that physical activity can play in people already diagnosed with cancer. Several research studies are now linking regular physical activity after a cancer diagnosis with lower rates of cancer-related mortality, particularly from breast and colorectal cancer. These findings are important when you consider that thanks to earlier detection and improved treatments, more people than ever are surviving cancer.

Adding further to the evidence for the benefits of being physically active after a cancer diagnosis, United States researchers looked at the lifestyle habits of over 1000 men with cancer. All the men were part of a long-running observational study, the Harvard Alumni Health Study.

The men first gave estimates of their normal physical activity levels in 1988, a median of 6 years after their cancer diagnosis. The physical activity estimate was updated in 1993 and the men were followed right through to 2008.

What clearly stood out was the earlier age of death from cancer and heart disease in men who were inactive. The inactive men accumulated less than the equivalent of an hour’s walking per week compared to the very active men who were active for more than the equivalent of 10 hours walking each week.

It could be that the very inactive men were that way because of pre-existing poor health, yet when allowances were made for age, smoking, body weight, and diet, the survival benefit was still clearly in favour of the active men.

What it all means

We probably don’t need more research to tell us how beneficial being physically active is for us. The key message though about physical activity after a cancer diagnosis is that a person should still try and be as active as they possibly can, even in the face of a serious illness.


Confused about the mixed soup of nutrition messages being stirred through the media? Tim maintains an active nutrition blog at where you’ll find the latest nutrition research and controversies discussed in straight forward language, distilling out what you need to know for your better health.

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