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Exercise has so many benefits -- lower body weight, fat loss, less pressure on your joints and organs, reduced risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. But it could also shield you from cancer for you to 20 years.

Most people exercise to look better. Whether you want to lose fat, increase definition, fit in your favorite designer clothes, look the part at a big event, or are on the trail of big bulging muscles, the main reason the majority of folks have for training is to look good.

There’s no shame in this – first opinions count, and if you feel happier and more confident in a slimmer, buffer body, that’s great. But one of the main, and often overlooked benefits of exercise is its ability to prevent disease.

Heart disease, diabetes and stroke risks can all be reduced by partaking in a regular exercise program, yet recently a study was published displaying the huge benefit of exercise on lowering cancer risk later in life.

The study, led by cardiologist Dr. Susan Lakoski of the University of Vermont, who specializes in fitness and its effect on disease found that men who were most fit at age 50 back in the 1970s had a much lower incidence of lung and colon cancer 20 to 25 years later. Among those men who did develop lung or colon cancer, the men who had greater fitness levels were far less likely to die from it.

The study was extremely comprehensive, examining over 17,000 men.

Participants took a treadmill test to assess their fitness levels, and each subject was tested to see how efficient they were at producing energy. This was done by measuring their metabolic equivalent of task, or METs. One MET is around the same amount of energy as it takes just to sit down and do nothing. An average middle aged man walking at a brisk pace on an incline can get up to around 9 METs, athletes can get to 15 METs or so, while elite triathletes can achieve up to 20 METs. Basically the higher the MET score, the fitter you are.

Using the test results, the men were divided into five groups from least to most fit. The most fit men were 68 percent less likely to develop lung cancer and 38 percent less likely to develop colon cancer 20 years down the line.

Every increase in MET score also showed around a 14 percent lowered risk of dying from cancer and a 23 percent lowered risk of dying from heart disease. Perhaps surprisingly, levels of obesity didn’t affect the percentages or risk rates much, if at all, putting even more weight into the argument of fitness helping to reduce cancer risk long-term.

While these findings are extremely positive, more research is needed to determine truly whether the data provides a fair representation for the general public. There also needs to be more research to see whether these results are comparable for women, as well as men of different ages.

Whether you can be in poor shape during middle age and turn it around is also up for debate. The interesting thing about this study was than not only were frequent exercisers and fitter men more resistant to developing cancer, but that those who did were better equipped to fight it and less likely to die from it, which does support the notion that getting fitter later in life may help you fight off the disease, even if you don’t have higher fitness levels earlier in life.

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