Short bursts of energy found to reduce cancer risk

Most VILPA typically accumulated from several one minute bursts across the day.

Lead author Emmanuel Stamatakis, a professor of physical activity and population health at the Charles Perkins Centre, whose previous research found VILPA can extend our lifespan, expected there would be a reduction in cancer risk. Still, he says: “We’re surprised because the effect sizes are just staggering. We’re talking about very small amounts of physical activity”.

According to Professor Karen Canfell, director of the Daffodil Centre, a joint research venture between Cancer Council NSW and the University of Sydney, this really matters.

“More than 1800 cancer cases diagnosed in Australia this year are likely to be the direct result of physical inactivity, while many more will be indirectly related to physical inactivity because of its association with obesity, which is also a cancer risk factor,” says Canfell.

As it was an observational study, they cannot prove cause and effect, however Stamatakis says there are “very plausible” hypotheses, based on our needs as humans.

“Both insulin resistance and systemic inflammation are major risk factors for cancer,” he says. “So cardio respiratory fitness improvements very plausibly can lead to improvements in major physiological processes that have established causal links with cancer.”

Rob Newton, a professor of Exercise Medicine at Edith Cowan University, says the public health message from the “striking” findings mean we should all aim for some form of vigorous daily activity, even if only for relatively short periods of time. However, he adds that individuals with a heightened risk of cancer should seek out a tailored program from an exercise physiologist.


“It is established that more vigorous physical activity, including exercise, has greater benefit for both reducing risk and treating all chronic diseases including cancer,” he says. “This is because more vigorous physical activity creates a greater disturbance to the homeostasis of all the body systems including the immune, endocrine, muscular and cardiorespiratory systems, which establishes and maintains a more anti-cancer environment within the body.”

Evelyn Parr, a researcher in nutrition and exercise physiology from the Australian Catholic University agrees, explaining that even one-minute bouts of exercise take time to recover from.

“By recover I mean reduce heart rate, breathing rate, body temperature and restore fuels used,” says Parr. “[This means] that the body is oscillating between intense activity and recovery from that activity, creating a dynamic system that has the potential to be protective of disease states like cancer.”

She says that while cause and effect cannot be distinguished from these outcomes, it opens the door to prospective studies collecting that data. And although the findings suggest every moment of movement matters, the physical activity guidelines of at least 2.5 hours of moderately intense exercise each week, are still important for our health.

Stamatakis acknowledges that VILPA is no panacea, but it is encouraging for the 80 per cent of the population who are resistant to structured exercise or for those of us who struggle to fit exercise into their daily schedule.

While finding activities we enjoy can help us integrate them into our daily lives, it ought to become a priority for everyone regardless: movement is a biological necessity.

“Given the enormous volume of high-quality research, I am astounded that exercise is still viewed as a nice to have rather than a requirement for healthy living,” Newton says. “It is pretty well accepted that we should brush our teeth each day, and yet finding five to 10 minutes each day to perform vigorous physical activity would arguably have equal or much greater individual and population health benefit.”

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