Fitness in 40s May Help Shield Men From Lung, Colon Cancer

Study couldn’t find benefit for prostate cancer, but other factors may be at play

Issue 26 Winter/Spring 2016

Men, want to feel better and avoid cancer for years to come? Get fit.

That’s the message from a recent study. It found that men who were fit in their late 40s had significantly lower rates of lung and colon cancer compared to their more sedentary peers.

man walks on treadmill at gym

They were also more likely to survive a cancer if they developed the disease later on, according to a team led by Dr. Susan Lakoski of the University of Vermont.

Published in JAMA Oncology, the study used treadmill tests to track the fitness of nearly 14,000 Texan men aged between 46 and 50. The men’s fitness was recorded over an average of 6.5 years, anywhere between 1971 and 2009.

In the study’s last decade – 1999 to 2009 – more than 1,300 of the men developed prostate cancer, 200 had developed lung cancer, and 181 had developed colon cancer, according to Medicare data.

However, the group who had tested highest in cardiorespiratory fitness during their late 40s had a 55 percent lower odds for developing lung cancer, and a 44 percent lower risk of colon cancer, compared to men who scored the lowest.

No benefit was seen for prostate cancer, but Lakoski’s team believe that may be due to the fact that men who stay in shape also tend to get screened for prostate cancer more often, skewing the results.

The researchers note that while the link between exercise and better heart health is well known, there’s been surprisingly little study on the role fitness might play in keeping malignancies at bay.

Lakoski believes the cancer-fighting benefits of staying fit last over the long term.

"This preventative message starts earlier than you think, way before you develop cancer,” she told BBC News. "Your health behaviors and your fitness earlier in life has an impact 20 or 30 years later – and that's what people don't realize.”

There was one other benefit noted in the study: If men were unfortunate enough to develop a cancer, their survival odds were higher if they had been fit in their late 40s.

In fact, men in the fittest cohort who went on to develop lung, colon, or prostate cancer saw their risk of dying from the disease drop by nearly a third, compared to the least-fit males, the study found.

And what about any anti-cancer benefit midlife fitness might have for women?

According to the researchers, studies have long shown that regular exercise lowers a woman’s odds for breast or ovarian cancer. But Lakoski’s group said that only future research will show if the specific benefits seen in this new study hold true for women, as well.