Physical activity and cancer

Being physically active is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer, especially bowel cancer. People who are physically active may also lower their risk of breast, endometrial (lining of the womb), lung, pancreatic and ovarian cancers.

Being active can also help to prevent heart disease and diabetes, as well as maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight or obese is also a risk factor for several major cancers.

In addition, physical activity can help you feel better by giving you more energy and vitality. The environment can benefit from your activity too if you leave your car at home and walk or cycle!

How much should I be doing?
The National Physical Activity Guidelines recommend:

  • Think of movement as an opportunity, not an inconvenience
  • Be active every day in as many ways as you can
  • Put together at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity (like walking) on most, if not every day of the week
  • You should also undertake some regular vigorous exercise, if you can, for added health and fitness.

Protecting against cancer
For cancer prevention, the scientific evidence suggests the more physical activity the better. Research now suggests that 60 minutes or more of moderate activity (like brisk walking, mowing the lawn or medium-paced swimming) or 30 minutes or more of vigorous activity (like aerobics, jogging or fast cycling) daily may be best to reduce your risk of cancer.

If you have a medical condition or you are unsure about your health, ask your doctor’s advice before starting vigorous activities.

Walking is great exercise. You don’t have to join a gym to be more active. Choose activities you enjoy, and those that fit into your routine. If you are inactive, any increase in activity is beneficial.

Is wearing a pedometer helpful?
Pedometers are easy to use and can tell you how many steps you have taken and how far you have walked. Knowing your step count can help you stay motivated and give you feedback on if you are achieving your goals.

A good target to aim for is 10 000 steps a day. The figure of 10 000 is based on an average level of incidental physical activity of around 7000 steps plus an additional 30 minutes moderate exercise, another 3000 steps. Remember every step counts, so increase your steps gradually towards your goal.

Tips for being more active

  • Go for a stroll at lunchtime.
  • Have some active fun such as bike riding, ball games or join a sporting team.
  • Walk with a friend or join a walking group.
  • Take a dancing class.
  • Try an exercise class at the gym.

Don’t forget that being more active in everyday tasks can increase your overall level of physical activity too! This is called incidental activity and it can help to significantly increase the number of steps you do each day and the amount of energy you burn (which in turn helps maintain your body weight).

  • Take the stairs, not the lift.
  • Get off the bus/train one stop earlier and walk.
  • Walk over and talk to your colleagues instead of sending an email.
  • Park further away from your destination and walk the rest of the way.
  • While watching television, do some simple stretching exercises.
  • Do more vigorous housework like vacuuming or mowing the lawn.

Download the  Physical Activity and Cancer Position Statement here.