Short, Intense Bursts of Effort Reduce the Risk for Cancer

Doris Maugg, PhD

August 18, 2023

The results of a recent study in JAMA Oncology suggest that even short periods of intense, intermittent physical activity are associated with a lower risk for cancer. This activity could be a promising measure for cancer prevention in people who otherwise find it difficult to exercise regularly.

Periods of intense, intermittent physical activity are short phases of strenuous physical exercise that normally last for 1 or 2 minutes, such as a short sprint for the bus or walking up the stairs. In the prospective cohort study conducted in a large group of unathletic adults, researchers investigated a potential dose-effect relationship between intense and daily intermittent physical activity and the cancer incidence rate.

Using data gathered from wearable arm trackers, the researchers analyzed the physical activity of 22,398 people with an average age of 62 years from the UK Biobank. Of these participants, 54.8% were women. After a median follow-up of 6.7 years, corresponding to 149,650 person years, they determined the general cancer incidence rate in this cohort and the incidence rate of 13 kinds of cancer associated with minimal physical activity (physical-activity related cancers).

Over the study period, 2356 cancer events occurred, of which 1084 could be attributed to kinds of cancer associated with minimal physical activity. Nearly all of the intense physical activity (92.3%) was achieved in bursts of up to 1 minute.

Four Minutes

The daily duration of activity was almost linearly associated with the outcome, wrote Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at the University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia. "The dose-effect curve was more vertical, and the extent of the risk reduction for kinds of cancer associated with minimal activity was larger than for the overall cancer incidence rate."

For example, the lowest dose of intense, intermittent physical activity of up to 1 minute was generally 3.4 minutes per day for cancer in general and 3.7 minutes per day for cancer associated with minimal activity (hazard ratio [HR], 0.83 and HR, 0.72, respectively).

"The results of the study with an average follow-up time of almost 7 years suggest that people with a little less than 4 minutes per day of sporadic intense activity had an overall 17% lower risk of cancer," wrote Yvonne Wengström, PhD, professor of nursing at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, in an accompanying editorial.

For kinds of cancer possibly associated with minimal activity, the researchers found the risk to be reduced by 28% through daily intermittent physical activity. "Even a few minutes of short, intense physical exercise in people with less leisure activity could lower their cancer risk," wrote Wengström and colleagues.

Only at the end of 2022 did the data from Stamatakis and his colleagues suggest a correlation between a little more than 4 minutes of intense physical activity per day and a lower risk for cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and overall mortality in athletes and nonathletes.

Wearable Arm Trackers

The authors of the recent study used an existing cohort’s activity data from an earlier substudy of the UK Biobank that measured acceleration in the wrist. The movement behavior here was recorded over a period of 7 days in more than 90,000 people between 2013 and 2015.

Wengström and her colleagues rated the arm trackers to be more reliable than the questionnaires that were completed by the subjects. "One strength of the present study is that physical activity was evaluated with the help of wrist acceleration meters, even though nonathletes were defined using the questionnaire data."

Information about the general lifestyle of healthy living people also had to be included. Wengström believes that the researchers succeeded in this, since they adjusted the analyses for the following important factors:

  • Age

  • Sex

  • BMI

  • Level of education

  • Smoking status

  • Alcohol consumption

  • Duration of sleep

  • Fruit and vegetable consumption

  • Medication intake

  • Parental cancer history

Clinical Implications

According to Wengström, more studies are required to see whether the results of this study can also be transferred to patients who already have a cancer disease. This is because patients with cancer such as premenopausal and postmenopausal women with breast cancer diseases, who have different biologies and hormonal environments, are affected differently by physical activity.

However, physical activity does play a role in patients with cancer "since physical fitness improves muscle strength, cancer-related fatigue, and the survivors’ quality of life," said Wengström. However, it is still important to find the correct amount of physical activity for each group of patients and for each individual patient. Nevertheless, "any physical activity is better than none," wrote Wengström and her colleagues.

This article was translated from Medscape's German edition.


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