Vitamin D, Omega-3s, and Strength Exercises May Reduce Cancer Risk in Older People
Simple at-home strength exercises plus vitamin D and omega-3 supplements seemed to reduce cancer risk in healthy people age 70 and older, according to a small European study.
The research was published in the April 2022 issue of the journal Frontiers in Aging. Read “Combined Vitamin D, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and a Simple Home Exercise Program May Reduce Cancer Risk Among Active Adults Aged 70 and Older: A Randomized Clinical Trial.”
About vitamin D
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which is essential for good bone health. Vitamin D also helps the immune, muscle, and nervous systems function properly. Most vitamin D is made when an inactive form of the nutrient is activated in skin that’s exposed to sunlight. You can get smaller amounts of vitamin D in fatty fish, eggs, and fortified milk.
Vitamin D may play a role in controlling normal breast cell growth and may be able to stop breast cancer cells from growing. Studies suggest that vitamin D may protect against certain diseases, including breast cancer and other cancers.
About omega-3 fatty acids
You can only get omega-3 fatty acids from the foods you eat because your body can’t make this type of fat on its own. These important nutrients are involved in many bodily functions, including how your immune system responds to threats. Much of the research on omega-3 fatty acids has looked at how they benefit heart health. Still, some studies suggest that omega-3s may prevent or slow cancer development by reducing inflammation, slowing cancer cell growth and division, and stopping cancer cells from producing new blood vessels.
The highest concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold-water fish, such as sardines, salmon, herring, tuna, cod, mackerel, and halibut. Lower concentrations of these fatty acids are also found in plant foods such as flaxseed, walnuts, Great Northern beans, kidney beans, navy beans, and soybeans.
About strength exercises
Strength exercises — also called resistance exercises — make your muscles work harder by adding weight or resistance to the movement. These exercises strengthen bones, improve balance and posture, and boost quality of life.
Some studies suggest that exercise can help decrease inflammation and improve how the immune system functions — both of which may help reduce cancer risk.
Examples of strength exercises include weight lifting, resistance band exercises, and push-ups, squats, and other body-weight exercises.
About the study
Many studies show that getting older is a risk factor for almost all types of cancer, including breast cancer. Still, there isn’t much research on lifestyle changes that may reduce cancer risk.
In this study — called the DO-HEALTH trial — the researchers wanted to see if a program of home strength exercises along with vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acid supplements could reduce the risk of three cancers:
They also wanted to assess the benefits of each component of the program on its own.
The study included 2,157 people age 70 and older from five European countries: Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, and Portugal. None of the people had been diagnosed with cancer or had any other major health problem in the five years before they joined the study.
The people in the study had an average age of 74.9 and an average of three health conditions.
Among these participants:
61.7% were women
82.6% were physically active
24% were taking vitamin D supplements before the study started
5.2% were active smokers
The study lasted for three years.
The researchers divided the people in the study into eight groups:
264 people took 2,000 IU of vitamin D supplement and 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acid supplement a day and did 30 minutes of strength exercises three times a week
265 people took the vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acid supplements and did 30 minutes of flexibility exercises three times a week
275 people took the vitamin D supplement, plus a placebo, and did the strength exercises
272 people took the vitamin D supplement, plus a placebo, and did the flexibility exercises
275 people took the omega-3 fatty acid supplement, plus a placebo, and did the strength exercises
269 people took the omega-3 fatty acid supplement, plus a placebo, and did the flexibility exercises
267 people took two placebos and did the strength exercises
270 people took two placebos and did the flexibility exercises
A placebo is a pill that looks just like the supplement or medicine being studied, but contains no active ingredients.
Every person in all eight groups took two capsules each day. All the capsules were identical in appearance and taste, so neither the researchers nor the people in the study knew who was taking a supplement and who was taking a placebo.
The strength program consisted of five exercises:
going from sitting to standing (basically, an air squat)
standing on one leg
doing seated pull-backs using a resistance band
doing seated external shoulder rotations using a resistance band
going up and down steps
The flexibility exercises were:
flexing the knees and hips in a seated position
flexing the hips in a standing position
rotating the chest and trunk in a seated position
rolling the shoulders forward and back in a seated position
flexing and rotating the ankles in a seated position
Once the study started the people couldn’t take any additional omega-3 supplements and were allowed to take only the recommended amount of vitamin D supplement a day.
The people in the study had clinical exams, including bloodwork, when they joined the study, as well as one, two, and three years after the study started. The researchers also interviewed the participants by phone every three months.
Overall, the researchers verified that 81 cancers were diagnosed during the study.
The researchers found that each of the three treatments somewhat reduced cancer risk:
vitamin D supplements reduced cancer risk by 24%
omega-3 fatty acid supplements reduced cancer risk by 30%
strength exercises reduced cancer risk by 26%
When two treatments were combined, the reduction in risk was larger:
vitamin D plus omega-3 fatty acid supplements reduced cancer risk by 47%
vitamin D supplements plus strength exercise reduced cancer risk by 44%
omega-3 fatty acid supplements plus strength exercise reduced cancer risk by 48%
All three treatments combined offered the greatest benefits, reducing cancer risk by 61%.
“This is the first randomized controlled trial to show that the combination [of] daily vitamin D3, supplemental marine omega-3s, and a simple home exercise program may be effective in the prevention of invasive cancer among generally healthy and active adults aged 70 and older,” lead researcher Heike A. Bischoff-Ferrari, MD, DrPH, said in a statement. “Our results, although based on multiple comparisons and requiring replication, may prove to be beneficial for reducing the burden of cancer.”
What this means for you
The results of this study are very encouraging, but there are several things to keep in mind:
This was a small, preliminary study. Larger studies are needed to see if the results can be repeated.
The people in the study were all age 70 and older. We don’t know if vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acid supplements, plus strength exercises, reduces cancer risk in people younger than 70.
The study lasted for three years. So it’s not clear if the benefits would level off or drop over time.
The researchers didn’t report the ethnic or racial makeup of the people in the study. A 2020 analysis of global participation in clinical trials found that 76% were white, 11% were Asian, and 7% were Black. So it’s likely that most of the people in this study were white, which means that it’s not clear if the results apply to people of other races.
Still, it makes sense to do all you can to keep your breast cancer risk as low as possible and your overall health the best it can be, including:
eating a diet low in added sugar and processed foods and rich in unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods
exercising regularly at the highest intensity level you’re comfortable with
avoiding or limiting alcohol
Learn more about Breast Cancer Risk Factors.
Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor
— Last updated on May 12, 2022, 8:27 PM