Study links sedentary lifestyle with higher risk of dying from cancer

Replacing 30 minutes of sitting with low-impact exercise reduced risk by about a third

Greater inactivity is independently associated with a higher risk of dying from cancer, a new study finds.

The study, published Thursday in JAMA Oncology, is the first to look at objective measures of sedentary behavior and cancer mortality, researchers from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center said.

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The researchers found the most sedentary individuals had an 82% higher risk of cancer mortality compared to the least sedentary individuals.

"This is the first study that definitively shows a strong association between not moving and cancer death," Susan Gilchrist, associate professor of clinical cancer prevention and lead author of the study, said in a press release. "Our findings show that the amount of time a person spends sitting prior to a cancer diagnosis is predictive of time to cancer death."

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Researchers said replacing 30 minutes of sedentary time with physical activity could lower risk of cancer death by 31% for moderate-intensity activity, such as cycling, and an 8% for light-intensity activity, such as walking.

"Conversations with my patients always begin with why they don't have time to exercise," said Gilchrist, who leads MD Anderson's Healthy Heart Program. "I tell them to consider standing up for 5 minutes every hour at work or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It might not sound like a lot, but this study tells us even light activity has cancer survival benefits."

For this study, researchers recruited participants of the REGARDS study. The 8,002 REGARDS — REasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke — participants did not have a cancer diagnosis at study enrollment. They wore an accelerometer on their hip during waking hours for seven consecutive days.

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After a follow-up of five years, 268 participants had died of cancer. Longer duration of sedentary behavior was independently associated with a greater risk of cancer death. The study also found that either light or moderate-to-vigorous physical activity made a difference.

"Our findings reinforce that it's important to 'sit less and move more' and that incorporating 30 minutes of movement into your daily life can help reduce your risk of death from cancer," Gilchrist said. "Our next step is to investigate how objectively measured sedentary behavior impacts site-specific cancer incidence and if gender and race play a role."

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