Can sedentary lifestyle lead to bowel cancer?
Updated: May 2
Regular physical activity is essential for human health, a statement that, at this point, very few people would disagree with. Exercise reduces the future risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and premature bone loss. For young men, physical activity, especially resistance training, helps maintain healthy testosterone levels and libido and has favourable effects on cognitive performance, such as learning, memory & effortless attention.
But what do we know about the preventative effects of physical movement on a widespread disease such as bowel cancer, the second most common cancer among men in developed countries? Do men who spend more time sitting get more bowel cancer?
According to a study published in the Springer journal, prolonged sitting was associated with a 25% increased risk of bowel cancer and a 7% increased risk of rectal cancer compared to those sitting the least. Unfortunately, the design of this study was not able to show the safe vs unsafe duration of sitting. In addition, the results might have been affected by other behaviour, such as alcohol consumption and smoking, which are more common among highly sedentary people and not fully accounted for.
In the same year, another review of 23 observational studies found a direct association between excessive sedentary work and colon cancer and rectal cancer risk, strengthening the association even further.
What about people who already got bowel cancer? Can they still benefit from exercise?
Another study in Springer examined bowel cancer survival in people undergoing bowel cancer-related surgery. They found that those who maintained regular exercise habits had significantly reduced risk of cancer-related mortality post-recovery.
This probably means that exercise not only reduces the odds of getting cancer in the first place, but in people who already had it, it likely offers additional protection against remission.
I have discussed the consequences of sedentary behaviour in another blog post which includes more information on mental health, cognition and metabolic health.
Summary & Key Points
People who are the most passive appear to be at an increased risk of bowel and rectal cancer; however, at present, we do not know to what degree those risks are contributed to by behaviours such as smoking and alcohol consumption, which are more common among people with a highly sedentary lifestyle.
Regular exercise is highly beneficial even for people who have already been treated for bowel cancer, and it might reduce the risk of cancer remission.
Practices and habits that encourage movement, even briefly, are highly recommended for everyone with sedentary work.
Acquiring an adjustable standing/sitting desk might be worth the investment.
I have described other practices for more movement in another blog post.
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And if you are struggling with health problems or are keen to take active measure to reduce the odds of future health issues, you might benefit from my nutritional therapy programme. See the first link below.
Choy KT, Lam K, Kong JC. Exercise and colorectal cancer survival: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Colorectal Dis. 2022 Aug;37(8):1751-1758.
Hermelink R, Leitzmann MF, Markozannes G, et al. Sedentary behavior and cancer-an umbrella review and meta-analysis. Eur J Epidemiol. 2022 May;37(5):447-460.
Lee J, Lee J, Ahn Jet al. Association of sedentary work with colon and rectal cancer: systematic review and meta-analysis. Occup Environ Med. 2022 Apr;79(4):277-286.