This 11-Minute Ritual Could Reduce Your Risk of Cancer


What if I told you there was a pill you could take every day that would lower your risk of heart disease, prevent multiple types of cancer, and even reduce your odds of an early death? That pill doesn’t exist (yet), but in one of the largest studies to date, Cambridge University researchers found the next-best thing: 11 minutes of daily physical activity.

You read that correctly. Just over 10 minutes of walking, jogging, playing sports, exercising, or otherwise being active—basically anything other than sitting or lying down—reduced the risk of cancer by 10 percent, heart disease by 19 percent, and death by any cause by 23 percent, compared to no activity. These results came from a meta-analysis of studies that looked at more than 30 million people in total and was published on Feb. 28 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

“We know that physical activity, such as walking or cycling, is good for you, especially if you feel it raises your heart rate,” study co-author and Cambridge University public health modeling researcher James Woodcock said in a press release. “But what we’ve found is there are substantial benefits to heart health and reducing your risk of cancer even if you can only manage 10 minutes every day.”

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The World Health Organization recommends that adults do at least 150 to 300 minutes of physical activity per week, corresponding to 21 to 43 minutes daily. But in the researchers’ analysis, the authors found a dose-response relationship between activity and heart disease, cancer, and death—meaning the more activity, the better. However, they found that even exercise below the recommended amount could have significant benefits. Activity that met the WHO’s recommendations, meanwhile, was associated with a 15 percent reduction in cancer risk, 29 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease, and a 31 percent reduction in death compared to no activity.

“If you are someone who finds the idea of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week a bit daunting, then our findings should be good news,” Cambridge University physical activity epidemiologist and study co-author Soren Brage said in the press release.

Two years ago, another meta-analysis from a group in Norway looked at how both activity and sedentary time affected the risk of death in studies with a combined total of over 44,000 people. Being sedentary for long periods of time increased participants’ risk of death, though high levels of physical activity could counteract some of these negative effects, the researchers found.

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If this all sounds unbelievable, know that there are reasons to be cautious about the findings. First off, the risk reductions presented by the authors might seem high because they’re compared to the very uncommon (if not altogether implausible) situation of a person getting absolutely zero physical activity per week. Still, there were meaningful comparisons to draw between more relevant groups of people: For instance, a person who is active for 21 minutes a day had an 8 percent lower risk for death, compared to one who is active for 11 minutes.

Both this meta-analysis and the 2020 one rely on observational study data, meaning participants are not being asked to change their habits. Due to this, the researchers cannot be certain they have controlled for potential inherent differences between more and less active people.

In the study, the researchers attribute at least a portion of the stark findings to a phenomenon called reverse causality. What this means is that the outcomes they studied—and specifically, cancer diagnoses—could cause a person to be less physically active, rather than the other way around. For example, cancer is likely to make a person less physically active because of the “often-prolonged trajectory toward disability and illness,” according to the authors of a JAMA Oncology comment. Cancer, in turn, also increases a person’s risk of death.

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Additionally, some studies they analyzed excluded people with underlying conditions, while others did not; the authors reported that studies that did not exclude people based on pre-existing conditions tended to see stronger associations between physical activity and death, heart disease, or cancer, bolstering the evidence for reverse causality.

Even so, it is likely that physical activity plays a role in preventing cancer, heart disease, cancer, and ultimately death. Exercise can improve heart health by slowing a person’s heart rate, lowering their blood pressure, and increasing levels of “good” cholesterol. And according to the National Cancer Institute, physical activity can lower certain hormones and signaling molecules, reduce inflammation, and improve the immune system—all of which may decrease the risk of cancer and its progression.

Or, as Brage put it: “Doing some physical activity is better than doing none.”

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