A new study has revealed that being active at a young age can reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer later in life, and active adolescents who remain active as adults reduce their bowel cancer risk even more.

The benefits of exercise on overall health has long been known, but this new study is the first to demonstrate how starting physical activity at adolescence and continuing into adulthood has a cumulative positive effect in reducing a person’s risk of developing bowel adenomas.

Published in the British Journal of Cancer, the research shows that a pattern of lifelong exercise can reduce the risk of developing precancerous polyps

Known as adenomatous polyps or adenomas, precancerous polyps can be found in up to half of patients age 60 years and over, during a routine colonoscopy.

By removing adenomas discovered during the procedure, a colonoscopist can prevent cancer from developing.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of São Paulo's Medical School (FM-USP) in Brazil, in collaboration with colleagues from Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, and other medical facilities in the northeast United States.

Conclusions by the authors were based on an analysis of data collected from 28,250 U.S. nurses who participated in the Nurses' Health Study II.

Beginning in the late 1980s and continuing until 2011, nurses provided information every 2 years about their health including hormone use, pregnancies, and menopausal status and detailing any illnesses and habits such as smoking.

The researchers added questions in 1997 that asked the subjects about their lives from age 12 to 21 years.

According to one of the investigators, the nurses answered questions regarding travel times and how they travelled, along with information regarding moderate physical activity, such as walking, as well as more intense exercise, such as gym classes, swimming, and other sports.

From this information, the researchers estimated the level of physical activity the nurses undertook during their adolescence.

By the time the survey ended in 2011, the nurses were also answering lifestyle questions that allowed the researchers to collect information on how active or inactive they were as adults.

All participants in the Nurses’ Health Study II had to undergo at least one sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy so that the researchers could track occurrences of adenomatous polyps.

After adjusting for other cancer risk factors, including smoking, poor diet, alcohol, and family history, the authors of the new study were able to see a few clear associations:

  • People who had been active between the ages of 12 and 22 years were 7% less likely to develop adenomatous polyps compared with those who did less than 60 minutes of moderate exercise each day.
  • For participants who were active only during adulthood — between the ages of 23 and 64 years — there was a 9% reduction in risk.
  • People who were active both when young and during adulthood had a 24% reduction in their likelihood of developing any adenomatous polyps. 

Most surprising, however, was the conclusion researchers were able to draw regarding the development of larger, advanced polyps.

According to the findings, being active in both adolescence and adulthood reduced the occurrence of these polyps by 39%.

No one knows exactly why some people develop bowel cancer and others don't, but you can make choices and take steps which have been shown to help reduce your risk. 

Research shows that remaining physically active is one way of reducing the risk of developing potentially cancerous polyps; lifestyle choices, including bowel cancer screening and surveillance, can also reduce your bowel cancer risk, as can dietary choices.

Consuming just 50g of processed meat each day increases bowel cancer risk by 18%; eating 100g of red meat each day increases a person's risk of developing bowel cancer by 17%. 

Bowel Cancer Australia's annual Meat Free Week campaign provides a great opportunity to get people thinking about how much meat they eat and the impact eating too much meat can have on their health.

Meat Free Week - Eat Well. Live Well. Be Well.

Meat Free Week (23 - 29 September 2019) challenges participants to give up meat for seven days and raise funds for Bowel Cancer Australia.

Celebrating its seventh year, everyone is invited to take the Meat Free Week challenge and discover how easy it is to make little changes that can create a big difference.

Delicious recipes are just the start.

Sign up to support Bowel Cancer Australia this 23 - 29 September today.

Further details, delicious meat-free recipe ideas, and helpful resources are also available on the dedicated campaign website meatfreeweek.org