Doctors have long known that keeping active can help maintain better health. A new study suggests that when women exercise as teens, it can have long-lasting health benefits, leading to lower mortality and lower risk of cancer as adults.
The study comes from Wei Zheng, Sarah J. Nechuta, and other researchers at the Vanderbilt Epidemiology Center in Nashville, Tennessee and is published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. The researchers used data from a study that followed 75,000 women in Shanghai, China, called the Shanghai Women’s Health Study (SWHS). Recruited between 1996 and 2000, the women ranged in age from age forty to age seventy. The researchers interviewed the women about their lifestyle and their exercise habits as a teen, performed blood tests and other medical tests, and followed up with the women every two or three years, for an average of about thirteen years.
Over the course of the study, 5,282 of the women died, including 1,620 from cardiovascular disease and 2,375 from cancer. The researchers adjusted their data for various socioeconomic factors to isolate the effects of teen exercise on health and mortality.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that the women who played sports or exercised as a teen
had a sixteen percent lower risk of dying of cancer and a fifteen percent lower risk of dying of any cause, compared to the women in the study who did not exercise as teens. Women who exercised as teens as well as later in life had about a twenty percent lower risk of death from any cause.
The study also looked at how much these women exercised as a teen. It appears that exercising just 1.3 hours a week as teens helped the women reduce their chance of cancer and increase their lifespan. This means teens do not have to spend all their free time exercising to reap the health benefits, but maintaining moderate amounts of exercise can improve their long-term health. There is no need for intense physical activity since even moderate levels of aerobic exercise work just fine for health benefits according to previous studies.
Although the study looked at Chinese women, the scientists believe they would find similar findings in other ethnic populations. The study was also limited in that it relied on women self-reporting their amount of exercise, so the information may not have been completely accurate.
The study suggests that although exercise can be beneficial as an adult, women should start exercising much earlier to benefit the most. However, it seems it is never too late to make lifestyle improvements. An earlier study published in JAMA Oncology found that middle-aged men who maintained a high level of exercise were much less likely to die from lung cancer and colorectal cancer than those who did not exercise.
Exercise as a teen is thought to affect various health factors that can have a life-long impact. For example, exercise can reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol, improve immune function, reduce inflammation, and decrease insulin and insulin-like growth factors. Keeping these potential health problems in check as a teen means these problems are unable to start early and keep building up through life. Maintaining exercise as an adult helps keep health problems at bay even longer. Other studies have even suggested that keeping active can improve mood and mental health, reducing depression and improving quality of sleep.
The researchers call for greater promotion of exercise participation for teens. It seems like the earlier people adopt a healthier lifestyle, the better their chances of living a long and healthy life. However, the researchers also stress that it is never too late to start improving your health.