Earlier diagnosis and medical improvements means many cancer survivors are living longer. Now, a new study of over 1,000 male cancer survivors suggests being physically active may add even more years to their lives.

The study investigators, including researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, report their findings in the January issue of the Journal of Physical Activity & Health.

They analyzed data on 1,021 male cancer survivors who were part of the Harvard Alumni Health Study, whose participants entered Harvard as undergraduates between 1916 and 1950.

The average age of the men was 71 when they filled in questionnaires about their physical activities in 1988, about 6 years after their cancer diagnosis. Men diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer were not included.

The questionnaires asked the men about not only sports or recreational activity, but also general activity, such as walking and stair climbing. This physical activity data was then updated in 1993.

During a follow-up that lasted until 2008, the researchers counted 777 deaths among the participants, including 335 from cancer and 190 from cardiovascular disease.

To analyze the data, they grouped the men according to how many kilojoules per week they burned during physical activity and looked at the link between these groups and rates of death.

After adjusting for age, body mass index (BMI), smoking, diet and early parental death, the researchers found the men who burned the most kilojoules per week through exercise (over 12,600 kilojoules – approximately 3,009 calories), were 48% less likely to die from any cause over the follow-up period than men who burned the least (under 2,100 kilojoules per week).

As a rough guide, a man who weighs 176 pounds (80 kg) burns around 4,200 kilojoules a week by walking briskly for about 30 minutes a day on 5 days of the week.

The researchers also found that higher levels of physical activity were linked to lower rates of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease.

They conclude:

Engaging in physical activity after cancer diagnosis is associated with better survival among men.”

They suggest physical activity should be “actively promoted” to extend the lives of cancer survivors.

Grants from the National Institutes of Health helped finance the study.

Meanwhile, another group of researchers also recently reported in The Journal of Cancer Survivorship that older breast cancer survivors benefit from exercise programs.