Exercise burns calories, but the benefits go far beyond weight loss — it could be lifesaving. Researchers from Vanderbilt Epidemiology Center studied thousands of women to determine if their level of exercise as a teenager had a significant influence on their risk of death as an adult. The findings, published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, not only revealed exercise had the power to lower their risk of death, but also risk of cancer and heart disease as adults.

"In women, adolescent exercise participation, regardless of adult exercise, was associated with reduced risk of cancer and all-cause mortality," the study’s lead researcher Dr. Sarah Nechuta, a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, said in a press release. "Our results support the importance of promoting exercise participation in adolescence to reduce mortality in later life and highlight the critical need for the initiation of disease prevention early in life."

Nechuta and her team of researchers analyzed data from the Shanghai Women’s Health Study, which included physical activity records of roughly 75,000 women between the ages of 40 and 70. Each woman reported how much she exercised when she was 13 years old up until the age of 19 and followed up with in-person interviews every two to three years. Researchers compared each woman’s childhood exercise to their adult level of exercise, body mass index (BMI), possible chronic diseases that developed throughout their lifetime, and if they had died during the experiment.

It turns out, the women who engaged in 1.33 hours of exercise a week or more during adolescence had a 16 percent lowered risk of death from cancer and 15 percent lowered risk of death from all other causes. If the women reported participating in team sports as adolescents, they had a 14 percent lowered risk for death from cancer, and a 10 percent lowered risk for death from all other causes. The biggest benefit, however, was earned by women who exercised throughout both adolescence and adulthood, lowering their risk of death from all causes by 20 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports less than three in 10 high school students get 60 minutes or more of physical activity every day. Adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic exercise coupled with two or more days of strength training. However, less than half actually meet that standard. Being physically inactive can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, blood pressure, anxiety, depression, certain types of cancers, and excessive weight gain. Emphasis is put on young girls to engage in sports and physical activity due to the fact women are more likely to lead inactive lifestyles compared to men, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Because the study was based on exercise data reported by the participants themselves, and did not observe physical activity practices, it’s likely that their recall isn’t exact. However, researchers plan to pursue further studies to track exercise from adolescence and re-examine the link between disease and death risk with exercise to provide a greater understanding of how exercise plays a role throughout their lifetime.

Source: Nechuta SJ. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. 2015.