Media Room

Vigorous physical activity lowers risk of colon cancer: new research

21st March 2018 - Cancer prevention Cancer research

This month, support Cancer Council’s The March Charge for a cancer free future

New research by Cancer Council NSW has confirmed that physical activity is an important factor in preventing cancer: the study found that vigorous physical activity lowered someone’s risk of developing colon cancer by 22%.

The study in over 200,000 NSW people aimed to find out if physical activity, obesity and prolonged sitting influenced someone’s risk of colon and rectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer (CRC), defined as cancer of the colon or rectum, is one of the most common cancers in Australia, with almost 17,000 new cases each year.

“We found that vigorous physical activity – even just over 10 minutes a day – reduced study participants’ risk of colon cancer,” Dr Visalini Nair-Shalliker, Research Fellow at Cancer Council NSW, said.

Cancer Council recommends aiming for 60 minutes of moderate or 30 minutes of vigorous physical activity every day. There is evidence to suggest that the more exercise you do, the lower your risk – especially if this is more vigorous physical activity.

“We also found that being overweight or obese increased the risk of developing colon cancer by 32%,” Dr Nair-Shalliker continued.

Since physical activity can also contribute to weight loss, which can help people manage the cancer risk that comes from being overweight or obese, the study also examined if the risks of being obese were offset by the benefits of physical activity, or vice versa.

“We found that the two risk factors (physical activity and obesity) appear to be independent of each other – meaning that anyone can benefit from physical activity, regardless of their body weight,” Dr Nair-Shalliker added.

This finding highlights that anyone can lower their risk of cancer by being physically active, regardless of their body weight.

“In light of our new study – and knowing that 1 in 3 cancer cases in Australia can be prevented by living a healthy lifestyle – we recommend that people aim to be physically active as well as achieve a healthy weight,” Dr Nair-Shalliker concluded.

This March, Cancer Council’s The March Charge provides an opportunity for everyone, no matter their fitness level, to get healthy and contribute to a cancer free future. Head online to support The March Charge at

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Media contact: Isabelle Dubach, Cancer Council NSW, T: (02) 9334 1872 M: 0401 524 321,

Notes to editor

About the study

  • “Physical activity, obesity and sedentary behaviour and the risks of colon and rectal cancers in the 45 and up study” is a research paper by Cancer Council NSW, published in BMC Public Health.
  • It’s the first analysis that looked at the independent and interactive effects of physical activity based on the Australian recommended guidelines, BMI and sitting time on colon and rectal cancer risks.
  • 226,584 participants of 45 and Up were analysed for this study. The Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study is the largest ongoing study of healthy ageing in the Southern Hemisphere, involving a quarter of a million people – one in every 10 men and women aged 45 and over in NSW.
  • There were 846 cases of colon cancer and 369 cases of rectal cancer diagnosed in the study period.
  • Participants who engaged in any amount of vigorous activity/week had 22% lower risk of developing colon cancer compared to participants who did not perform this type of activity. Colon cancer risk was not associated with sitting time or moderate activity.
  • Increasing BMI was associated with increased colon cancer risk. Participants with a BMI between 29.4 and 50 had a 32% increased risk compared to participants with a lower BMI.
  • The role of physical activity on rectal cancer risk is less clear as no association has consistently been observed. In this study, rectal cancer was not associated with BMI, sitting time, moderate activity or vigorous activity.
  • The association between sitting time and cancer risk is complex. In our study, we didn’t find a link between prolonged sitting and colon or rectal cancer risk.
  • The study was co-funded by Cancer Council NSW and OUTRUN CANCER, a community fundraiser that raises money for Cancer Council NSW’s prevention research.
Cancer prevention Cancer research