Lockdown lifestyles putting Brits at increased risk of cancer

New research reveals that unhealthy habits have become more widespread.

20 March 2021

World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) today launches new findings highlighting the unhealthy habits Brits have picked up during the pandemic, and how they are a potential cause for concern when it comes to reducing the risk of cancer. The results are released to mark the start of Cancer Prevention Awareness Week (20–26th March).

A survey of over 2,000 people in the UK reveals that since the first lockdown in March 2020, adults were twice as likely to have started eating more unhealthy food and snacks than to have started exercising: two in five (40 per cent) of adults have started eating more unhealthy food and snacks, while only one in five (22 per cent) had started exercising. In addition, over a quarter of adults (27 per cent) reported that they have started drinking more alcohol.

Overall, more than half of respondents (51 per cent) shared that they had adopted no new healthy habits since the first lockdown including exercising more, drinking less alcohol and sugary drinks, stopping smoking, eating less processed meat and high-calorie foods and maintaining a healthy body weight.

Understanding the risks of cancer

Cancer Prevention Awareness Week 2021 launches on Saturday 20 March. Throughout the week WCRF aims to help people understand more about the links between lifestyle factors (such as diet, weight and physical activity) and cancer, as well as inspire people to make cancer prevention part of their everyday lives.

The charity is encouraging the public pick up healthier habits as lockdown eases by signing up to its Activ8: Eat Well, Move More plan. The free 8-week healthy living challenge delivers recipes, inspiration and step-by-step expert advice on nutrition and physical activity straight to your inbox, all based on WCRF’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations.

Sidonie Sakula-Barry, Health Promotion Manager at WCRF, said

Over the last year we’ve all experienced a huge disruption to our normal lives, so it’s unsurprising that, for a number of people, adopting or maintaining healthy habits has been challenging. As we start to see restrictions easing in the coming weeks, there is a fantastic opportunity for people to make some small lifestyle changes that could help improve their overall health. We have developed the Activ8 plan to provide tangible advice and support so that people can build long-term healthy habits and keep well for longer, while also reducing their risk of developing cancer and other diseases.

True impact of the pandemic

The survey also revealed that overall awareness of cancer risk factors has dropped. WCRF’s survey highlighted that the number of people who know that being overweight increases the risk of cancer fell from 69 per cent in 2020 to 62 per cent in 2021. Knowledge that a lack of physical activity can also increase a person’s risk has fallen from 53 per cent in 2020 to 48 per cent, and knowledge that alcohol increases the risk of certain cancers has fallen from 63 per cent in 2020 to 59 per cent in 2021.

Rachael Gormley, CEO of WCRF, said:

Most people are unaware that around 40 per cent of cancers could be prevented through changes to lifestyle – that’s the equivalent of 147,000 people every year in the UK who develop a preventable cancer. Sadly, these numbers are likely to increase; we are only now beginning to see the true impact of the coronavirus pandemic and how it has affected delays to the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. We believe it is more vital than ever that the public are aware of prevention measures, so with Cancer Prevention Awareness Week we want to give people the practical, straightforward advice and information they need.

WCRF’s Cancer Prevention Recommendations are based on the latest scientific research, with over 40 independent studies showing that the more closely people follow the package of Recommendations, the lower the risk of developing cancer. WCRF’s Recommendations include:

  • eating no more than three portions of red meat a week and little if any processed meat
  • eating a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, and very little junk food including sugary drinks
  • being active for at least 150 minutes a week, and sitting less
  • avoiding alcohol

WCRF is also asking people to sign its Prevention Pledge, as a way of encouraging people to make their Cancer Prevention Recommendations part of everyday life.


Notes to editors

For more information and media enquiries contact Annabelle Lane, Senior Media and Communications Officer at WCRF, on a.lane@wcrf.org / 07834 737285 or Laura Burnell, Head of Campaigns at WCRF, on l.burnell@wcrf.org / 07879 483022

About World Cancer Research Fund

WCRF is the UK’s only charity solely dedicated to cancer prevention and survival. Over the last 30 years, WCRF has worked tirelessly to understand the links between a person’s weight, diet, and physical activity levels and their cancer risk. 

www.wcrf-uk.org | Twitter | Facebook | YouTube | Instagram | LinkedIn

WCRF’s Cancer Health Check tool and Cancer Prevention Recommendations help people understand what changes they could make to reduce the risk of getting cancer. Based on the latest scientific research, the advice is practical and simple to understand.

About YouGov survey

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,116 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 11–12 February 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).