Being inactive and cancer risk

Move more Can physical inactivity increase 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.

On this page:

> What cancers does being active reduce the risk of?

> How does physical activity reduce cancer risk?

> How many people in the UK are regularly physically active?

> What activities can I do to reduce cancer risk?

> Tips for keeping active

What cancers does being inactive reduce the risk of?

To help prevent cancer, we recommend you to be physically active as part of everyday life – walk more and sit less.

There is strong evidence that being active reduces the risk of three cancers.

These cancers are:

Moderate physical activity (such as brisk walking) as well as vigorous physical activity (including running, fast cycling and aerobics) decreases the risk of colon, womb and post-menopausal breast cancer. Being vigorously physically active lowers your risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer.

> Living an active life: our free booklet can help you move more

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). Insulin resistance can increase levels of inflammation in the body which has been shown to have a role in cancer development.

Being active helps move food through the digestive system more quickly, reducing the amount of time that any cancer-causing substances are in contact with the lining of the bowel.

Being overweight or obese is linked to many types of cancer. There is strong evidence that aerobic physical activity, including walking, can help you maintain a healthy weight.

Conversely, being sedentary, and particularly screen time, such as watching television, spending time on the computer at work or playing video games, is a cause of weight gain, overweight and obesity.

Screen time is typically associated with being inactive, being exposed to the marketing of food and drink that promote weight gain, and snacking on high-calorie food and drinks.

How many people in the UK are regularly physically active?

We should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week. However, many of us are not meeting these guidelines.

Nation% of men meeting guidelines% of women meeting guidelines
N Ire6151
Figures from 2017–20 1

What activities can I do to reduce cancer risk?

Aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week.

Moderate intensity activities will make you feel warmer and breathe faster, but you should still be able to talk. This includes:

  • brisk walking
  • cycling
  • household chores
  • gardening
  • swimming
  • and dancing.

Vigorous activities will raise your heart rate and make you start to sweat and feel out of breath. This includes:

  • running
  • aerobics
  • sports such as squash, netball, football
  • and fast cycling.

To increase the benefits even more – and to help you control your weight – aim to do 45–60 minutes of moderate activity a day.

If you aren’t active, start introducing some short chunks (10 to 15 minutes) of gentle activity, such as walking, and build up slowly until you reach your target – anything is better than nothing.

Tips for keeping active

These 4 simple steps can make all the difference:

1. Make small changes

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

> Mowing the lawn and ironing count too! See how many calories you could burn with our exercise calorie calculator

> Couple your activity with some healthy eating: take a look at our recipes

2. 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.

> Take up a running challenge: look at our fundraising events for inspiration

3. Keep it fun

An activity you enjoy is easier to stick to. Inviting a friend or family member for a game of tennis or to join you for a jog can make it more fun and help them get healthier too.

4. 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.

1Physical activity statistics come from the Active Life Adult Survey 2019-20, Sport England, the National Survey for Wales 2019-20, the Scottish Health Survey 2019, and the Health Survey Northern Ireland 2016/17.