Men Who Survive Cancer and Stay Active Live Longer

Mark L. Fuerst

Physical activity significantly extends the lives of men who have survived cancer, according to the results of a new study.

Physical activity significantly extends the lives of men who have survived cancer, according to the results of a new study.

“We found that men who had survived cancer and were the most active had the lowest risk of dying from all causes, specifically from cancer and cardiovascular disease. With increasing amounts of activity, we saw decreasing risks of death across the different causes of death,” said coauthor Kathleen Y. Wolin, PhD, of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

The study adds to the growing body of literature showing that physical activity decreases the risk of dying for cancer survivors. “Physical activity also improves the quality of life for cancer survivors,” said Dr Wolin. “We recommend that cancer survivors be physically active both during and after treatment for cancer.”

Although the number of cancer survivors is increasing rapidly, little is known about whether engaging in physical activity after a cancer diagnosis is associated with lower mortality rates in men. Dr Wolin and colleagues conducted a prospective cohort study of 1021 men, average age 71 years, who were diagnosed with cancer (other than nonmelanoma skin cancer). These men were participants in the Harvard Alumni Health Study, initiated in the1960s, which included men who had entered Harvard University as undergraduates between 1916 and 1950.

In questionnaires in 1988, men reported their physical activities, including walking, stair-climbing, and participation in sports and recreational activities. Their physical activities were updated in 1993, and the men were monitored until 2008. At that time, 777 men had died, 337 men from cancer and 190 men from cardiovascular disease.

During the period while the men were monitored, those who expended more than 12,600 kilojoules (more than 3 million calories) per week in physical activity were 48% less likely to die than those who burned fewer than 2100 kilojoules (more than 500,000 calories) per week. This finding was adjusted for age, smoking, body mass index, early parental mortality, and dietary variables.

There were similar findings for mortality from cancer and cardiovascular disease. The most physically active cancer survivors were 38% less likely to die of cancer and 49% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease during the follow-up period.

Dr Wolin said physical activity was noted, on average, 6 years after a cancer diagnosis, which may limit the ability to generalize findings to all cancer survivors.

There has been extensive research showing that among generally healthy, cancer-free populations, physical activity extends longevity. But there has been relatively little such research on physical activity among cancer survivors, Dr Wolin noted.

 Many cancer survivors are living longer, because of earlier diagnosis and better treatment, and their numbers are increasing rapidly. “Physical activity should be actively promoted to cancer survivors to enhance their longevity,” she said.

Dr Wolin added that the study did not look at different kinds of cancer separately. “This is an area for future research,” she said.

The researchers published their results in the January 2014 issue of Journal of Physical Activity & Health.