Muscular Strength Associated with Lower Cancer Mortality

Obesity is a well-known risk factor for cancer, but does muscularity have any protective effect? Researchers from the Cooper Institute, which is the home of “aerobics”, wanted to know, and took a look at participants there. In this study, they looked at 8,677 men, age 20 to 82, whom they followed over a period of over two decades. Specifically, they wanted to understand “the associations between muscular strength, markers of overall and central adiposity, and cancer mortality in men.” They found that muscular strength is associated with lower cancer mortality. Far lower. Muscular Strength and Adiposity as Predictors of Adulthood Cancer Mortality in Men.

In sum, they found that the highest third of the group in muscle strength had about 40% lower cancer mortality than the lowest third in muscle strength. They also found, as expected, that higher body mass index, as well as higher percent body fat, were both associated with much higher rates of death through cancer; the obese had a cancer death rate almost double that of men with a normal BMI.

But here’s the real kicker: after adjusting for muscular strength, the associations of cancer with body mass index and body fat disappeared.

The associations of BMI, percent body fat, or waist circumference with cancer mortality did not persist after further adjusting for muscular strength (all P ≥ 0.1).

Their conclusion:

Higher levels of muscular strength are associated with lower cancer mortality risk in men, independent of clinically established measures of overall and central adiposity, and other potential confounders.

Amazing. “The associations of BMI, percent body fat, or waist circumference with cancer mortality did not persist after further adjusting for muscular strength (all P ≥ 0.1).” Muscular strength trumped all the other mentioned markers when it came to cancer mortality. The cancer risk at the highest tertile of strength was 40% less than the lowest.

This is of course association; it was not a randomized clinical trial. But the association of muscular strength with lower cancer mortality is striking, and especially the fact that it is a better marker than body fat or BMI.

Lift weights, beat cancer

This certainly suggests that regular resistance training is a good way to beat cancer. The authors believe that muscular strength is a proxy for regular exercise: “The apparent protective effect of muscular strength against cancer is likely to be due to a consequence of regular physical exercise, specifically resistance exercise.” Yet, it seems specifically resistance training that gives the benefits, since cardio does little to improve muscular strength.

One way in which resistance training likely decreases cancer risk is through improved insulin sensitivity. And the way that this type of training is superior to aerobic exercise is that collectively, the skeletal muscles make up a large portion of body weight; therefore insulin sensitivity is improved more than with cardio.

Even in those who have already had cancer, weightlifting is associated with far less cancer mortality.

Moral of the story: lift weights, beat cancer.

PS: For more like this, see my book, Muscle Up.

PPS: Check out my Supplements Buying Guide for Men.

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8 comments
the Revision Division says November 17, 2014

[…] NEWS YOU CAN USE: Muscular strength associated with lower cancer mortality. […]

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teapartydoc says November 18, 2014

I’d be willing to bet that the muscular strength advantage disappears in steroid users.

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Weightlifting will extend your lifespan - Rogue Health and Fitness says March 29, 2015

[…] the death rate of cancer survivors. Muscular strength, which weightlifting of course enhances, is associated with far lower rates of cancer. Weight training has a much better effect on long-term control of waist size than does aerobic […]

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How evolution and exercise prevent heart disease - Rogue Health and Fitness says April 20, 2015

[…] By decreasing inflammation, exercise also exerts potent effects against many other diseases, including diabetes and metabolic syndrome, non-alcoholic fatty liver, and cancer. […]

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ProudDaddy says September 22, 2015

“Men with abdominal obesity (waist circumference >102 cm) and low levels of muscular strength were not at higher risk for cancer mortality when compared with those with high levels of muscular strength and with abdominal obesity.”

This statement from the discussion section of the Cooper study would indicate to me that I still better watch my waistline. (In fairness, the study notes that this conclusion had insufficient statistical power.)

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Chocolate prevents death - Rogue Health and Fitness says January 5, 2016

[…] Chocolate lowers levels of myostatin and increases grip strength in humans, as well as causes fat loss in lab animals. All of these could be expected to improve health and prolong life. Lower myostatin causes longer life in mice. Muscular strength is associated with lower mortality. […]

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Starting Strength: Starting Over - Vigor & Spirit says January 7, 2016

[…] and I could afford to add a few pounds of muscle mass, not only to look better, but for the many health benefits it brings. I also want to keep my testosterone levels as high as possible as I approach that age […]

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How to Prevent Cancer - Rogue Health and Fitness says May 15, 2017

[…] Muscular strength is associated with lower cancer death rates. The reason for this is probably not due to a protective effect of muscle in itself, but because more muscle means better insulin sensitivity and better overall health. You don’t need to be an actual bodybuilder to benefit from this effect of muscle, you just need to keep your muscle in fine tune and to retain muscle as you age. That means you should train for strength. […]

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