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Cancer-prevention benefit of exercise off most people’s radar, study shows

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St. Louis — Few Americans are aware that lack of exercise can increase their risk for certain types of cancer, according to a recent study from Washington University in St. Louis.

Researchers surveyed nearly 1,200 people, “oversampling socio-demographically disadvantaged groups,” to learn what types of diseases they thought are linked to insufficient exercise. Included in the survey was an open-ended question about what illnesses are caused by low levels of activity.

From 351 randomly selected responses, results showed that only 3.4 percent of respondents were aware that low levels of activity increase the risk of cancer. That is in sharp contrast to participants’ awareness of inactivity's effects on metabolic (65.8 percent) and cardiovascular (63.5 percent) health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, physical activity reduces the risk of several cancers, including breast cancer (with a median 20 percent reduction) and colon cancer (with a median 30 percent reduction).

The study cites other research showing that less than 30 percent of breast, prostate and colorectal cancer survivors were aware that insufficient physical activity was a risk factor for the cancer for which they were diagnosed.

The researchers speculate that the lack of knowledge may be a result of current public health campaigns that focus mainly on the benefits of exercise on heart health and weight loss. They note, however, that further research is needed to test that theory.

The study was published online Aug. 9 in the Journal of Health Communication.

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