Physical activity plays a critical role in maintaining a healthy weight, and reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, but could it also be powerful enough to protect against cancer? A team of researchers from the National Cancer Institute has discovered the more often you exercise, the less likely you are to develop 13 different types of the disease. But with more than half of Americans failing to meet the minimum requirement of weekly physical activity, researchers believe millions are missing out on the protective effect exercise offers for potentially deadly mutations.

For the study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers recruited 1.4 million participants and tracked their physical activity and incidences of cancer for roughly 11 years. By the end of it, researchers calculated 186,932 cases of cancer. And participants who worked out more often had a lower risk of 13 out of the 26 different cancers recorded in the study population, even if it was leisurely physical activity like taking a brisk walk or a yoga class.

Exercise reduced the risk of:

  • Esophageal cancer by 42 percent
  • Liver cancer by 27 percent
  • Lung cancer by 26 percent
  • Kidney cancer by 23 percent
  • Gastric cardia by 22 percent
  • Endometrial by 21 percent
  • Myeloid leukemia by 20 percent
  • Myeloma by 17 percent
  • Colon cancer by 16 percent
  • Head and neck cancer by 15 percent
  • Rectal cancer by 13 percent
  • Bladder cancer by 13 percent
  • Breast cancer by 10 percent

Overall, the more often a person exercised, the lower their risk of cancer was by 7 percent. However, researchers also found frequent gym goers actually increased their risk of prostate cancer by 5 percent and their risk of malignant melanoma by 27 percent. It's worth noting the latter findings occurred only in regions with higher levels of sun exposure and not regions where there was less sun exposure.

"These findings support promoting physical activity as a key component of population-wide cancer prevention and control efforts," according to the authors.

Unfortunately, the authors added, they did not take into account whether or not the participants’ diets or smoking habits influenced the outcome of their cancer risk. They only focused on the amount they exercised, and whether or not they were diagnosed with cancer over the 11-year study period.

Despite the study’s limitations, physical activity still does the body good. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), exercise has been extensively studied for its protective benefits from colon cancer, with more than 50 studies examining the link between the two. Most conclude that just by increasing the intensity, duration, or frequency of exercise, people can reduce risk up to 40 percent. Experts suggest physical activity reduces risk of colon cancer by balancing energy, hormones, and metabolism, on top of regulating insulin production; it also reduces inflammation.

Not only can physical activity protect a person from developing cancer in the first place, but previous research has also found when cancer patients walked three to five hours a week, they were able to improve their survival rates compared to patients who remained sedentary.

While it's recommended adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-intense exercise five or more days of the week, or at least vigorous-intense activity at least 20 minutes three or more days of the week, many fall short. The good news, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is that sweating for as little as 10 minutes can help prevent and ensure your body is given the greatest chance at a long, healthy quality of life.

“We know 150 minutes each week sounds like a lot of time, but it's not,” experts at the CDC wrote. “That's 2 hours and 30 minutes, about the same amount of time you might spend watching a movie. The good news is that you can spread your activity out during the week, so you don't have to do it all at once. You can even break it up into smaller chunks of time during the day. It's about what works best for you, as long as you're doing physical activity at a moderate or vigorous effort for at least 10 minutes at a time. ”

Source: JAMA Internal Medicine. 2016.