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, endometrial (lining of the womb) and post-menopausal breast cancers.

Being active can also help to prevent heart disease and diabetes, maintain and/or improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels 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!

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

The National Physical Activity Guidelines recommend:

  • Be active every day in as many ways as you can
  • Put together between 30-60 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity (like brisk 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.
  • Do muscle strengthening activities at least 2 days each week
  • Doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If you currently do no physical activity, start by doing some, and gradually build up to the recommended amount.
  • Think of movement as an opportunity, not an inconvenience

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.

Physical Inactivity
Being sedentary for long periods, irrespective of the overall amount of physical activity, is associated with increased risk of bowel, endometrial, ovarian and prostate cancer, regardless of meeting physical activity guidelines. More time spent sitting also increases risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.

The Sedentary Behavior Guidelines recommend regularly breaking up long periods of sitting each day. Even if you meet the physical activity guidelines, you can still benefit from minimising time spent sitting.

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! Incidental activity can help to 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.

Download the Be Physically Active- Reduce your cancer risk handout here.