Physical activity and cancer prevention

Can being active reduce your cancer risk?

You probably know that being active can help keep your heart healthy – and the good news is that it can also reduce your risk of cancer. 

As well as helping you stay in shape, research shows that being active or doing exercise has a direct role in preventing some cancers like bowel and breast cancer.

What’s the link between physical activity and cancer risk?

We have strong evidence that being active reduces the risk of three cancers:

We could prevent about 1 in 8 cases of bowel and breast cancers, and 1 in 10 cases of womb cancer in the UK by being active for 30 minutes a day at least 5 times a week.

How does physical activity reduce cancer risk?

Scientists are still investigating exactly how physical activity reduces cancer risk, but studies show that regular activity can help keep your hormone levels healthy. This is important as having high levels of some hormones can increase your cancer risk.

Being active can lower insulin resistance (a condition where the hormone insulin becomes less effective at lowering blood sugar levels), which has been shown to have a role in cancer development.

Being overweight or obese is linked to many types of cancer. As physical activity uses calories it can help in maintaining a healthy weight.

What type of activity should I do?

Any type of activity is good – aim for 30 minutes or more of moderate to high intensity activity a day. Any activity that raises your heart rate and makes you breathe deeper counts. This can be done in one go, or smaller chunks of 10 to 15 minutes.

Tips for keeping active

Taking a few simple steps can make all the difference:

  • Make small changes

Look at your day-to-day routine. Make a note of when you fit activity in now and where you could do more, even if it’s just a bit more of what you already do, for example walking for longer, or slightly faster.

  • Active transport

There are plenty of easy ways to build activity into your daily routine – like cycling and walking. Instead of using public transport or driving, try cycling, jogging or walking briskly for all or part of your journey.

  • Sit less

Time spent watching television, reading and being on the computer can all add up. Try to swap some of these sedentary activities for more active ones like going for a walk with friends or starting a new active hobby like dancing or swimming.

For more tips on getting active, download our Move More booklet.