Short Bursts of Vigorous Exercise May Lower Cancer Risk

People who are unmotivated or unable to exercise regularly might be able to reduce their chances of getting cancer by engaging in a few minutes of vigorous activity every day.

Most people already know that exercise is one of the best things a person can do to stay healthy and promote healthy aging. However, regular physical activity is also associated with a reduced risk of certain cancers, including prostate, breast, and colon cancer.

Still, some people just don't have the time, motivation, or ability to exercise for 30 minutes to an hour every day. Or they start an exercise routine but find structured physical activity challenging to sustain. And this can lead to feelings of guilt over not doing enough to promote their health and reduce the risk of health conditions like cancer.

Can a few minutes of exercise help prevent cancer?

In a cohort study published on July 27 in JAMA Oncology, researchers investigated whether short daily bouts of vigorous activity measured with accelerometers worn on the participants' dominant wrist could reduce the incidence of cancer.

The research team used data from 22,398 non-exercising adults from the U.K. Biobank wrist accelerometry substudy. The male and female participants were primarily white, with an average age of 62.

Non-exercisers included in the study were participants who self-reported no leisure time exercise and one or fewer recreational walks per week.

The team examined the intensity and duration of light, moderate, and vigorous activity with data retrieved from wrist-worn devices. They also followed the participants' mortality and hospitalizations through October 30, 2021, or cancer incidences through June 30, 2021. Then, they accounted for other factors that might increase or lower cancer risk, such as age, sex, education level, and smoking status.

After analyzing the data, the scientists discovered that a minimum dose of 3.4 to 3.6 minutes of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA) per day was associated with a 17% to 18% reduction in total incident cancer risk compared with no VILPA.

Moreover, daily vigorous exercise for 4.5 minutes was associated with a 31% to 32% reduction in physical activity–related cancer incidence.

The scientists stress that the study was observational and could not confirm that short bursts of activity directly caused the reduced incidence of cancer. Still, for those who find long exercise sessions unappealing, these short vigorous workouts might be more manageable.

Nonetheless, the study authors say more research is needed using wearable devices to explore whether short bursts of intense activity could be a cancer prevention intervention strategy for people who don't like structured exercise.

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