Sitting for hours together isn’t just bad for your waistline. Research has linked long periods of inactivity to a higher risk of death by cancer.

Conversely, being active throughout the day and making just 30 minutes of time each day for exercising may reduce the risk of mortality by 8% to 31% in case you are diagnosed with cancer later in life.

These findings, published in JAMA Oncology on 18 June 2020, come at the end of a first-of-its-kind study on cancer and lifestyle, by researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre at the University of Texas, US.

What was different about this study was that the researchers used accelerometers to measure activity, compared with previous studies that depended on participants to report on their own movements throughout the day.

The "objective" data collected in this way confirmed what scientists have been saying all along—human beings are healthiest when they are moving about.

Indeed, the researchers said that while daily exercise was important, just getting up from your desk every few minutes and climbing stairs instead of taking the lift could also make a difference to health outcomes in cancer.

The study

The researchers recruited 8,002 Americans, including 3,668 men, with no signs of cancer for the study. The participants included Caucasian as well as Black Americans and the mean age of participants was 69.8 years.

For seven days between 2009 and 2013, each of the participants wore an accelerometer to track their activity level. After a mean follow-up period of 5.3 years, the researchers found that over 3% (268) participants had died of cancer.

The researcher crunched the data and found that not only did the most inactive participants have an 82% higher risk of dying from cancer, but those in the group who indulged in light to moderate exercise had an 8% to 31% higher chance of avoiding death by cancer.

The study was the first to use an accelerometer to measure periods of inactivity in connection with cancer mortality—prior to this, researchers have used accelerometers as a measure of activity for studies on heart health.

To be sure, the study has some limitations. One, it chose its participants from the ongoing Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study. The participants were also over 45 years old. Reviewers have wondered if the findings might be different for a younger and healthier sample population.

Additionally, cohort studies are limited to a specific set of people. It might be useful for us to do similar studies in India, where cancer accounts for over 8% of all deaths.

Cancer in India

India had 1.16 million cases of cancer and 784,728 cancer deaths in 2018, according to the World Health Organization’s India Cancer Country Profile 2020. 

Doctors say that as India’s burden of non-communicable diseases from heart disease to cancer rises, we must leverage preventive medicine and lifestyle changes to improve overall health, longevity and quality of life.

“150 minutes of light to moderate exercise every week is a must. Anything you want to do over and above that is your choice. Yoga, morning walk, swimming, running, whichever activity you enjoy, do that,” said Dr Ayush Pandey who is associated with myUpchar. 

“In addition to this, stay active as much as possible. Get up during the commercial breaks on TV. If you are working in an office, get up and stretch your legs and back every now and again. Or work at a standing desk,” Dr Pandey said.

Indeed, the study done at the MD Anderson Center showed that staying active and engaging in some kind of activity for 30 minutes daily was invaluable. In the end, it is the little things that add up to help us live our healthiest life.

Doctors for Inactive lifestyle linked to higher risk of death by cancer: study
Dr. Anil Heroor

Dr. Anil Heroor

22 Years of Experience

Dr. Kumar Gubbala

Dr. Kumar Gubbala

7 Years of Experience

Dr. Patil C N

Dr. Patil C N

11 Years of Experience

Dr. Vinod Kumar Mudgal

Dr. Vinod Kumar Mudgal

10 Years of Experience


  1. Gilchrist S.C., Howard V.J. and Akinyemiju T., et al. Association of sedentary behavior with cancer mortality in middle-aged and older US adults. JAMA Oncology. Published online June 18, 2020.
  2. ScienceDaily [Internet]. Sedentary behavior independently predicts cancer mortality, 18 June 2020.
  3. World Health Organization [Internet]. India Cancer Country Profile 2020
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