Big Muscles Reduce Cancer Risk in Men

When men are young, they typically want big muscles primarily for superficial reasons. It’s to attract the girl, be admired among peers, or defend against bullying by other males.

Rarely do guys think ahead and determine that big muscles could save their lives.

But maybe those “superficial” reasons are more about survival and species perpetuation than they appear at first glance.

If so, then evidence is now revealing that ‘muscle for survivability’ transcends the years, possibly becoming more important with age.

Case in point: A study shows that big muscles reduce cancer risk and, more specifically, risk of death by cancer in men.

How much of a risk reduction?

The cohort study showed up to 40% less chance of developing a deadly cancer.

The research, conducted between 1980 and 2003, followed 8,677 men aged 20 to 82.

After testing the subject’s strength and medical parameters, the researchers monitored how many developed cancer and died as a result.

The findings showed that the stronger and more muscular a guy is, the less likely he is of dying of cancer. This is the case even if a man carries some body fat with his muscle mass.

Let’s take a look at possible reasons that big muscles reduce cancer risk in men.

Why Big Muscles Reduce Cancer Risk in Men

Scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint the reason that big muscles reduce cancer risk and mortality in men.

This leaves the mechanism by which muscle mass provides a protective effect to speculative theory.

One possible reason postulated is that strength workouts and muscle mass increase the body’s turnover of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1).

IGF-1 is produced in the liver in response to growth hormone released by the pituitary gland.

IGF-1 promotes cell growth throughout the body. This includes the growth of cancer cells when they’re present.

If there’s greater use and turnover of IGF-1 by the muscles, there’s less of it that can hang around and promote the growth of cancerous cells if they become present.

That’s one hypothesis, anyway.

Big Muscles Reduce Cancer Risk: The Inflammation Connection

Cellular inflammation is a major increaser of cancer risk.

Insulin resistance is a considerable cause of cellular inflammation.

Building big muscles through rigorous resistance training is a terrific way to eliminate insulin resistance. Inversely speaking, it’s a great way to increase insulin sensitivity.

This is likely another reason for big muscles reducing cancer risk in men.

Studies have shown that long-term weight training reduces systemic inflammation. This might be because lifting weights triggers muscles to release an anti-inflammatory myokine called interleukin-6 (IL-6).

In contrast, fat cells release a pro-inflammatory cytokine called tumor necrosis factor (TNF-α). This is at least one reason body fat contributes to long-term inflammation.

Long-term systemic inflammation can raise cancer risk by causing DNA damage.

So muscle building workouts combined with reasonably low body fat can lower inflammation and its associated cancer risks.

In addition, improved insulin sensitivity lowers a person’s average blood sugar levels.

Since chronically high blood sugar is also a direct cause of cellular inflammation, it becomes obvious how bigger muscles can reduce inflammation and risk of cancer by lowering average blood sugar levels.

Big Muscles Reduce Cancer Risk: Immune System Connection

Another connection between big muscles and reduced cancer risk is associated with immune system function.

Generally speaking, the older we get, the further our immune systems fall into decline. This can leave us susceptible to infection and disease of all types.

But in 1999, researchers discovered that the bigger and stronger a subject’s upper arm muscles are, the more cancer-eliminating immune system cells they have in their blood.

The study involved 62 participants ranging in age between 90 and 106. The researchers took blood samples from these subjects and then added cancer cells to the blood.

The scientists then observed and measured the time it took for immune cells to eliminate the cancer cells.

As it turned out, two variables affected the immune system cells and their ability to eliminate the cancer cells – muscle mass and vitamin D.

The bigger and stronger the upper arm muscles of the participants, the more cancer-eliminating ‘CD16’ immune cells they had.

The higher the vitamin D level of the participants, the more effectively the immune cells functioned.

Greater muscle mass equaled more immune cells in the blood.

Higher vitamin D equaled more effectiveness of those immune cells.

Interestingly, higher levels of vitamin D have also been associated with greater muscle mass.

Big Muscles Reduce Cancer Risk in Men: Conclusion

It’s amazing that just a few decades ago, building muscle was considered a sort of side-show reserved for a few of society’s overly physical misfits.

Mainstream acceptance ushered in a subsequent phase in which muscle building seemed only beneficial for the purpose of visual enhancement.

But more and more research findings have surfaced revealing muscle building is an incredibly healthy endeavor.

Evidence shows we actually need bigger and stronger muscles as a holistic approach to long-term health, vitality, and longevity.

Among the most important of these findings are those showing big muscles reduce cancer risk in men. Whether it’s due to higher IGF-1 turnover, reduced inflammation, or a stronger immune response, muscle and strength building workouts are a good defense against cancer.



  1. Jonatan R. Ruiz, Xuemei Sui, Felipe Lobelo, Duck-chul Lee, James R. Morrow Jr., Allen W. Jackson, James R. Hébert, Charles E. Matthews, Michael Sjöström and Steven N. Blair. ‘Muscular Strength and Adiposity as Predictors of Adulthood Cancer Mortality in Men.’ Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention (Vol. 18, Issue 5) May 2009
  2. Pak-Shan Leung, William J. Aronson, Tung H. Ngo, Lawrence A. Golding, and R. James Barnard. ‘Exercise alters the IGF axis in vivo and increases p53 protein in prostate tumor cells in vitro.’ Journal of Applied Physiology (Vol. 96, Issue 2, Pgs. 450-454) Feb 2004
  3. Mariani E, Ravaglia G, Forti P, Meneghetti A, Tarozzi A, Maioli F, Boschi F, Pratelli L, Pizzoferrato A, Piras F, Facchini A. ‘Vitamin D, thyroid hormones and muscle mass influence natural killer (NK) innate immunity in healthy nonagenarians and centenarians.’ Clinical and Experimental Immunology (Vol. 116, Issue 1, Pages 19-27) April 1999

Strength Training for Longevity

Many people have long recognized the association of regular physical exercise with health, vitality, and longevity.

However, those positive effects are typically attributed to cardio exercise. It’s not intuitive for us to associate strength and strength training with longevity.

But as it turns out, the connection is real. Regular strength training raises the odds of extending one’s life.

Gaining and maintaining muscle strength is actually an ideal pursuit for the prospect of longevity.

How does being stronger help us live longer?

In a word: irisin.

Irisin is a protein that’s released by muscle. The more muscle we possess, the more irisin is released into our blood.

And it just so happens that high irisin levels are associated with a longer life span.

When researchers measured serum levels of irisin in a group of 79 centenarians (aged 100–104), they found high levels of irisin.

When the researchers compared those with the serum irisin levels of a group of young people (aged 27–39), the centenarian’s levels were higher.

The researchers also took irisin samples from a group of 27-39 year olds who’d had myocardial infarction (heart attack).

There was an even greater disparity between the high levels of irisin the centenarians possessed and the low levels the young ‘cardiac-challenged’ adults displayed.

This study’s findings led the researchers to conclude that more research is needed in uncovering the connection between irisin and longevity.

In the mean time, it likely provides a clue as to why stronger, bigger-muscled guys tend to live long, provided they don’t augment their muscle building with drug use.


Strength and Longevity: Cohort Study (Irisin in Action?)

Becoming a stronger man could help you stave off certain life-threatening diseases.

That’s the finding of a prospective cohort study out of Sweden.

A ‘prospective cohort study’ is one in which researchers follow a group of similar individuals over a period of time – usually years, sometimes decades.

The individuals in the study (“cohorts”) will typically differ with respect to certain factors being examined. This is to determine how those factors affect rates of a specific outcome.

In this case the ‘differences in factors’ was relative strength.

The “specific outcome” was likelihood of death from all causes.

Pretty simple; very straightforward.

The researchers stated their objective this way: “To examine prospectively the association between muscular strength and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer in men.”

The subjects were 8,762 men ranging in age from 20 to 80 years. They were studied from 1980 to 2003.

The results were then corrected for “physical activity, current smoking, alcohol intake, body mass index, baseline medical conditions, family history of cardiovascular disease, and cardio-respiratory fitness”

That way, the researchers could totally isolate the association between strength and mortality.

What were their findings?

In their own words: “Muscular strength is inversely and independently associated with death from all causes and cancer in men, even after adjusting for cardio-respiratory fitness and other potential confounders.”

Bottom line: Strong men displayed a reduced risk of dying.

In addition, there was a 33% less likelihood of strong men dying of cancer than there was of weaker men dying of the disease.

There is mounting evidence that one of the best insurances you have against early death is to get stronger.

‘Strength training for longevity’: Just one more great reason among many to lift weights, build muscle, and gain strength.



  1. Emanuele E., Minoretti P., Pareja-Galeano H., Sanchis-Gomar F., Garatachea N, Lucia A. ‘Serum irisin levels, precocious myocardial infarction, and healthy exceptional longevity.’ The American Journal of Medicine (Volume 127, Issue 9, Pages 888–890) Sept 2014
  2. Ruiz JR, Sui X, Lobelo F, Morrow JR Jr, Jackson AW, Sjöström M, Blair SN. ‘Association between muscular strength and mortality in men: prospective cohort study.’ British Medical Journal, (Volume 337, Issue a439, pages 92-95) 2008.

Building Muscle after 50: a Difference

Building muscle is difficult for many people. It often involves a lot of work without commensurate payoff.

But much of the struggle – the inherent difficulty – is unnecessary.

This is something I’ve concluded after a lot of observation. I’ve been involved in muscle building for thirty years.

That’s a long time to observe; a long time to test things and gather information.

It’s a long time to be dedicatedly involved in bodybuilding, which I’ve been.

Something I long-ago realized is there’s an underlying reason for most of the difficulty people encounter with muscle building.

There’s one mistake in approach that accounts for most of the resulting frustration.

It’s the 80/20 Principle as applied to errors. Thus, it’s the 20% of input (erred mindset/action) accounting for 80% of stagnation (bad results).

Ready for it?

Okay, here it is…

People struggle because they forget that successful muscle building is a two-step process. It’s a process of breaking down muscle tissue AND… successfully recuperating that tissue.

… But here’s the catch: The second half of the equation is as important as the first half. The recuperation between workouts is as important as the workouts themselves.

That’s where most of us miss the mark.

Oh, people will swear that they know it intellectually. They’ll say that they know all about what they usually label “recovery” between workouts.

But in practice they don’t really know if they’re “recovering”, much less fully recuperating.

What’s the difference between ‘recovering’ and recuperating?

‘Recovery’ just means you’ve regained your systemic energy and motivation to train a muscle again.

Evidence of recovery means nothing about whether the muscle tissue is stronger than before you trained it last time.

‘Recuperation’ means the muscle has actually repaired all the damaged tissue, plus gained some.

That ‘plus gained some’ part is VERY important. There needs to be enough recuperation since your last workout that compensatory protein synthesis has occurred.

Any less recuperation than that will end up wasting time. You’d just train the muscle again before it’s ready.

It will be a waste of energy too.

It’s a waste of your precious resources if your reason for working out is to build muscle size.


Recuperation is ‘Different’ for Mature Muscle

Throughout our lives, we produce cellular inflammation inside our bodies.

We produce oxidative responses. It’s just part of living, a by-product of burning oxygen.

Sometimes we produce more of it, like when we eat badly, party too much, and burn the candle at both ends.

Sometimes we produce less of it, like when we’re eating healthy, getting enough rest, and using anti-oxidants.

Muscle building (and all exercise) actually generates ‘free radicals’ and an inflammatory response inside our bodies.

Research reveals that when we were young (like twenty-something), inflammatory response from exercise helped us build muscle.

That’s why when young bodybuilding guys are given antioxidants it slows down their post-workout recuperation.

But if you give antioxidants and anti-inflammatory supplements to older people, it helps their recuperation.

This makes sense. When we’re twenty-something, we haven’t accumulated much oxidative damage. And our body’s endogenous anti-oxidants are at all-time highs.

When we’re fifty-something or above, we’ve got some accumulated inflammation, and less endogenous anti-oxidant defense.

When we’re forty-something or above, we’ve got even more accumulated inflammation and a further drop in endogenous antioxidants.

Thus, a difference for successfully building muscle over 50 involves using effective anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients.

… Which were things to actually avoid when attempting to build muscle at a young age.



Yannis Michailidis,  Leonidas G Karagounis,  Gerasimos Terzis,  Athanasios Z Jamurtas,  Kontantinos Spengos, Dimitrios Tsoukas,  Athanasios Chatzinikolaou,  Dimitrios Mandalidis,  Renae J Stefanetti,  Ioannis Papassotiriou. ‘Thiol-based antioxidant supplementation alters human skeletal muscle signaling and attenuates its inflammatory response and recovery after intense eccentric exercise.’ The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Volume 98, Issue 1, Pages 233–245) July 2013

Bobeuf F1, Labonté M, Khalil A. Dionne IJ. ‘Effects of resistance training combined with antioxidant supplementation on fat-free mass and insulin sensitivity in healthy elderly subjects.’ Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice (Volume 87, Issue 1, Pages e1–e3) Jan 2010