Long Term Regular Exercise Lowers the Risk of Sex Hormone Sensitive Cancers

The amenorrhea and delayed menarche of athletes raised the question: Are there differences in the long-term reproductive health of athletes with moderate training compared to nonathletes?

A study of 5398 college graduates ages 20-80 years, of whom 2622 were former athletes and 2776 were nonathletes, showed that the former athletes had a significantly lower lifetime occurrence of breast cancer and cancers of the reproductive system compared to the nonathletes. More than 82.4% of the former college athletes began their training in high school or earlier, compared to 24.9% of the nonathletes. The analysis controlled for potential confounding factors, including age, age of menarche, age of first birth, smoking, and cancer family history. The relative risk (RR) for nonathletes compared to athletes for cancers of the reproductive system was 2.53 (95% confidence limit (CL), 1.17-5.47) (Figure 5). The RR for breast cancer was 1.86 (95% CL, 1.00-3.47). The former college athletes were leaner in every age group compared to the nonathletes.

Although one can only speculate as to the reasons for the lower risk, the most likely explanation is that long term, the former athletes had lower levels of estrogen because they were leaner, and more estrogen was metabolized to the nonpotent catechol estrogens. Also, the former athletes may have consumed diets lower in fat and saturated fat. Such diets shift the pattern of estrogen metabolism toward the less active catechol estrogens.

Compared to the nonathletes, the former college athletes also had a lower lifetime occurrence

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Figure 5 Prevalence rate of cancers of the reproductive system for athletes (circles) and nonathletes (crosses) by age group. (From Frisch RE, Wyshak G, Albright NL et al. (1985) Lower prevalence of breast cancer and cancers of the reproductive system among former college athletes compared to non-athletes. British Journal of Cancer 52: 885-891, with permission from the British Journal of Cancer.)

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Figure 5 Prevalence rate of cancers of the reproductive system for athletes (circles) and nonathletes (crosses) by age group. (From Frisch RE, Wyshak G, Albright NL et al. (1985) Lower prevalence of breast cancer and cancers of the reproductive system among former college athletes compared to non-athletes. British Journal of Cancer 52: 885-891, with permission from the British Journal of Cancer.)

(prevalence) of benign tumors of the breast and reproductive system; a lower prevalence of diabetes, particularly after age 40 years; and no greater risk of bone fractures, including risk of wrist and hip fractures, in the menopausal period.

These data indicate that long-term exercise, which was not at Olympic or marathon level but moderate and regular, reduces the risk of sex hormonesensitive cancers and the risk of diabetes for women in later life. Data showing that moderate exercise also reduces the risk of nonreproductive system cancers suggest that other factors, such as changes in immunosurveillance, may also be involved.

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