Engaging in physical activity during the teenage years may help to reduce the risk of death due to cancer and other diseases in later life, researchers recently found. Clarfying long-term impacts of modifiable lifestyle factors like exercise in adolescence is of key importance, and could have significant public health implications for disease prevention over the course of life, said lead author Sarah J. Nechuta.

Nechuta and her colleagues analyzed data from the Shanghai Women’s Health Study, a large, population-based prospective cohort study of about 75,000 women ages 40 to 70, from Shanghai, China, led by Wei Zheng, MD, PhD, at the Vanderbilt Epidemiology Center.

The study contains detailed information on participants reported at baseline recruitment, including self-reported exercise participation between the ages of 13 and 19, adult lifestyle-related factors, and mortality outcomes. In-person interviews were conducted to collect baseline data and follow-up data every two to three years.

After an average of 12.9 years of follow-up, there were 5,282 deaths, including 2,375 from cancer and 1,620 from cardiovascular disease.

Adjusted for socioeconomic factors in adult life, the researchers discovered that women who took part in exercise as adolescents for 1.33 hours a week or less had a 16 percent lowered risk for death from cancer, and a 15 percent lowered risk for death from all causes.

Those who participated in exercise as adolescents for more than 1.33 hours a week had a 13 percent lowered risk for death from all causes.

Nechuta, speaking in an interview, said:

“In women, adolescent exercise participation, regardless of adult exercise, was associated with reduced risk of cancer and all-cause mortality. 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."

Adjusting for socioeconomic factors in adult life, women who participated in team sports as adolescents had a 14 percent lowered risk for death from cancer, and a 10 percent lowered risk for death from all causes.

Women who participated in exercise both in their adolescent and adult lives had a 20 percent lowered risk for death from all causes.

“While we found adolescent exercise to be associated with lowered risk of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease as adults, some associations were attenuated after adjusting for adult factors that may influence mortality later in life, such as exercise, diet, body mass index [BMI], socioeconomic status, and a history of chronic diseases. However, it is important to note that adult factors, such as adult exercise, BMI, and chronic diseases are potentially influenced by adolescent exercise, and adjusting for adult factors in these types of studies may not always be the best approach, as overadjustment could be a concern,” Nechuta added.

Original Study:

Sarah J. Nechuta, Xiao Ou Shu, Gong Yang, Hui Cai, Yu-Tang Gao, Hong-Lan Li, Yong-Bing Xiang, and Wei Zheng Adolescent Exercise in Association with Mortality from All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer among Middle-Aged and Older Chinese Women Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev Published OnlineFirst July 31, 2015; doi:10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-15-0253

Photo: K.M. Klemencic/flickr

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