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Tens of thousands of cancer deaths could be prevented each year by 45 minutes of daily walking

More than 46,000 cancer cases in the United States might be prevented each year if almost all of us walked for about 45 minutes a day, according to an eye-opening new study of inactivity, exercise and malignancies published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

The study, which analyzed cancer incidence and the physical activity habits of nearly 600,000 American men and women in every state and the District of Columbia, found that about 3 percent of common cancers in the United States are strongly linked to inactivity. Something as simple as getting up and moving, the findings suggest, might help tens of thousands of us avoid developing cancer in the coming years.

According to Adair K. Minihan, an associate scientist at the American Cancer Society who led the new study, if everyone in America who can exercise started walking for an hour on weekdays, theoretically the 46,356 cases tied to inactivity should disappear.

Already we have plenty of evidence that exercise affects cancer risk. In past experiments, physical activity has changed the immune system in ways that amplify the body’s ability to fight tumor growth. Exercise can, for example, ramp up the activity of certain immune cells known to target cancer cells. Exercise has also been associated with longer survival in people with certain forms of cancer, possibly by boosting levels of inflammatory substances that inhibit cancer cell growth. A 2016 review in JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that our risks for at least 13 types of cancer, including breast, bladder, blood and rectal cancers, drop substantially if we are physically active, and a separate 2019 report calculated that those reductions could be as high as 69 percent.

At the same time, many studies show that being inactive raises our risks for various cancers. But scientists know surprisingly little about how those risks translate into actual cases or, more concretely, how many people each year are likely to develop cancers closely linked to moving too little.