Exercise in Teen Years Tied to Lower Mortality Later

Teens line up to begin a track race.
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Women who exercised when they were teens may have a lower risk of dying from cancer and other causes in middle and older age, according to a new study.

In the study, researchers asked 75,000 Chinese women ages 40 to 70 whether they exercised when they were between 13 and 19 years old, and if so, how much they exercised. The researchers also examined the women's general lifestyle habits, including exercise, in adulthood. They then followed the women for almost 13 years, examining how many of them died from cancer, cardiovascular disease and other causes.

During the study, 5,282 of the women died, including 2,375 who died from cancer and 1,620 who died from cardiovascular disease.

"In women, adolescent exercise participation, regardless of adult exercise, was associated with reduced risk of cancer and all-cause mortality," study author Sarah J. Nechuta, an assistant professor of medicine Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tennessee, said in a statement.

The researchers found that the women in the study who did at least some exercise as teens, up to 80 minutes weekly, had a 16 percent lower risk of death from cancer, and a 15 percent lower risk of dying from any causes over the 13-year study than the women who did not exercise at all during adolescence. [9 Healthy Habits You Can Do in 1 Minute (Or Less)]

However, doing more exercise was not linked with any additional benefit, in terms of longevity. The women who exercised for more than 80 minutes weekly during their teen years had a 13 percent lower risk of dying from all causes during the study period, compared with those who did not exercise in adolescence.

"Our results support the importance of promoting exercise participation in adolescence to reduce mortality in later life and highlight the critical need for the initiation of disease prevention early in life," Nechuta said.

The study also found that for women who exercised both when they were teens and as adults, the risk of dying from any cause during the study was 20 percent lower than for those who did not exercise at all. The former group’s risk of dying from cardiovascular disease was 17 percent lower, and their risk of dying from cancer was 13 percent lower, than women who did not exercise.

While the study found an association, it is not clear whether exercising during adolescence can actually cause lower mortality later in life. However, multiple mechanisms are likely involved in the link seen in the study, Nechuta said.

"One potential mechanism is that if you exercise as an adolescent, you may be more likely to exercise as an adult, and you may be more likely to have healthy behaviors that then contribute to the reduced risk of death," she told Live Science.

One limitation of the study was that the exercise data was self-reported, Nechuta said, which means that it relied on the participants' recall of how much they exercised as teenagers. "Future studies with more detailed adolescent physical activity assessments and studies in other populations are needed," she said.

The new study was published today (July 31) in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

Follow Agata Blaszczak-Boxe on Twitter. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer