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Cancer survivors who sit for prolonged periods during the day or perform little to no physical activity may have a higher risk of death from cancer and other causes. That’s according to a new study published in JAMA Oncology.

The study followed more than 1,500 cancer survivors who participated in a national survey from 2007 to 2015. Participants were asked about their sitting time and leisure time physical activity. Those who reported sitting for long portions of the day or logging insufficient leisure time physical activity had higher risk of death in the follow-up period compared to those who sat less or moved more. Specifically, survivors who reported sitting more than eight hours per day and engaging in fewer than 150 minutes of leisure time physical activity per week had a fivefold increased risk of death from any cause compared to those who reported sitting fewer than six hours per day and being sufficiently active.

headshot of Dr. Nate Parker

Dr. Nathan Parker, Health Outcomes & Behavior Program

“This study is an important addition to our rapidly increasing knowledge regarding the benefits of physical activity for cancer survivors. It’s critical that we counsel and engage cancer survivors to be more active and avoid prolonged sedentary time,” said Nathan Parker, Ph.D., assistant member of the Health Outcomes & Behavior Program at Moffitt Cancer Center.

While this advice is true for everyone, cancer survivors can face greater barriers to physical activity following diagnosis and treatment, and greater risk for long-term health challenges.

“Being physically inactive is bad for us and spending too much time sitting is bad for us. Together, they’re even worse for us. Our bodies are meant to move,” said Parker. “These findings lend credence to the saying ‘Don’t take cancer sitting down’ and highlight that we need to find ways to increase physical activity among cancer survivors.”

The study found that performing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week was tied to a 66% lower risk of all-cause mortality and a 68% lower risk of cancer-specific mortality than performing no physical activity.

Parker says it’s important to remember that it may not be feasible to immediately go from doing no physical activity to doing 150 minutes per week. Incrementally increasing physical activity and reducing sedentary time can help us sustain positive changes in these behaviors over time. Cancer survivors should identify physical activities they enjoy, incorporating both aerobic and muscle strengthening activity into their routines, and explore ways to break up or replace periods of prolonged sitting with standing or light activity.