Leisure-time physical activity, body size, and colon cancer in women. Nurses' Health Study Research Group

J Natl Cancer Inst. 1997 Jul 2;89(13):948-55. doi: 10.1093/jnci/89.13.948.


Background: Physical inactivity and high body mass index (weight in kilograms divided by height in square meters) have been linked to increased risk of colon cancer. However, none of the few prospective studies in women has shown a statistically significant reduction in colon cancer incidence or mortality associated with increased leisure-time physical activity.

Purpose: In this prospective study, we asked whether leisure-time physical activity, body mass index, or body fat distribution could significantly influence the risk of colon cancer in women.

Methods: The participants in this study were enrolled in the Nurses' Health Study, which began in 1976. Every 2 years, the women provided additional personal information and information on medical risk factors and major medical events. The time spent per week at a variety of leisure-time physical activities was determined, and the time spent at each activity was multiplied by its typical energy expenditure, expressed in terms of metabolic equivalents or METs. The resulting values for each woman were added to yield an MET-hours-per-week score. Reported diagnoses of colon cancer were confirmed by review of hospital records and pathology reports. Relative risks and associated 95% confidence intervals were calculated.

Results: In multivariate analyses that included body mass index, women who expended more than 21 MET-hours per week on leisure-time physical activity had a relative risk of colon cancer of 0.54 (95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.33-0.90) in comparison with women who expended less than 2 MET-hours per week. Women who had a body mass index greater than 29 kg/m2 had a relative risk of colon cancer of 1.45 (95% CI = 1.02-2.07) in comparison with women who had a body mass index less than 21 kg/m2. A tendency toward higher colon cancer risk was observed for increasing waist-to-hip ratio (relative risk = 1.48 [95% CI = 0.88-2.49] for comparison of the highest quintile ratio [>0.833] to the lowest [<0.728]).

Conclusions and implications: The significant inverse association between leisure-time physical activity and incidence of colon cancer in women in this study is consistent with what has been found in men. Recommendations to increase physical activity and maintain lean body weight should receive greater emphasis as part of a feasible approach to the prevention of colon cancer.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Body Constitution*
  • Body Mass Index
  • Body Weight
  • Colonic Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Leisure Activities*
  • Middle Aged
  • Risk
  • Women's Health*