The dose-response effect of physical activity on cancer mortality: findings from 71 prospective cohort studies

Br J Sports Med. 2016 Mar;50(6):339-45. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2015-094927. Epub 2015 Sep 18.


Background: The WHO recommends moderate physical activity to combat the increasing risk of death from chronic diseases. We conducted a meta-analysis to assess the association between physical activity and cancer mortality and the WHO recommendations to reduce the latter.

Methods: MEDLINE and EMBASE were searched up until May 2014 for cohort studies examining physical activity and cancer mortality in the general population and cancer survivors. Combined HRs were estimated using fixed-effect or random-effect meta-analysis of binary analysis. Associated HRs with defined increments and recommended levels of recreational physical activity were estimated by two-stage random-effects dose-response meta-analysis.

Results: A total of 71 cohort studies met the inclusion criteria and were analysed. Binary analyses determined that individuals who participated in the most physical activity had an HR of 0.83 (95% CI 0.79 to 0.87) and 0.78 (95% CI 0.74 to 0.84) for cancer mortality in the general population and among cancer survivors, respectively. There was an inverse non-linear dose-response between the effects of physical activity and cancer mortality. In the general population, a minimum of 2.5 h/week of moderate-intensity activity led to a significant 13% reduction in cancer mortality. Cancer survivors who completed 15 metabolic equivalents of task (MET)-h/week of physical activity had a 27% lower risk of cancer mortality. A greater protective effect occurred in cancer survivors undertaking physical activity postdiagnosis versus prediagnosis, where 15 MET-h/week decreased the risk by 35% and 21%, respectively.

Conclusions: Our meta-analysis supports that current physical activity recommendations from WHO reduce cancer mortality in both the general population and cancer survivors. We infer that physical activity after a cancer diagnosis may result in significant protection among cancer survivors.

Keywords: Cancer; Death; Meta-analysis; Physical activity; Quantitative.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Exercise*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / mortality*
  • Neoplasms / rehabilitation
  • Prospective Studies
  • Survivors
  • World Health Organization