Researching the link between physical activity and cancer

03 February 2017 | Healthy living, Science and research

Lucy is World Cancer Research Fund’s Press and Communications Officer. She has a background in biomedical science and has previously worked as a clinical trials data manager at the Institute of Cancer Research.

The theme for this year’s World Cancer Day is ‘support through sport’, harnessing the collective power of sportspeople across the globe to show their support for the fight against cancer.

Why sport?

Sport England recently announced that around 17.4 million English adults do less than the recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week. This is alarming – a lack of physical activity is strongly linked to an increased risk of bowel, womb and post-menopausal breast cancer.

Being physically active doesn’t mean that you have to be a marathon runner – just 30 minutes a day can help reduce your risk of cancer and help you maintain a healthy weight.

World Cancer Research Fund were the first to review the evidence and make the connection between physical exercise and cancer prevention. Today, we’re funding a range of projects all over the world to find out more about this link.

Head and neck cancer

In the Netherlands, a project led by Dr Anne May is aiming to find out if head and neck cancer patients benefit from a physical exercise programme during their chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment, and whether this would be feasible, given the side effects of the treatments.

If exercise is shown to improve outcomes, physical exercise schedules could become a part of the standard care programme for these patients.

Post-menopausal breast cancer

There’s strong evidence that women who are not sufficiently physical active and/or have a high BMI are at a higher risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. However, the biological mechanisms responsible for these relationships are not yet fully understood.

That's why we funded Professor Karen Steindorf from Germany. She wanted to see if physical activity and BMI affect the levels of particular sex hormones in post-menopausal women, which could help to explain the link between BMI and breast cancer.

Her findings suggest that some, but not all, sex hormones may play a role in this mechanism.

Breast cancer survivors

In Australia, Dr Brigid Lynch is researching whether using wearable activity trackers could increase physical activity and decrease sitting time among breast cancer survivors.

If this intervention is found to be successful, using activity trackers could become a widespread intervention to help breast cancer survivors keep active.

With people spending more time sitting down than ever before, we need to encourage research not only on how physical activity affects cancer risk, but also how people can be encouraged to have more active lifestyles.


You can help fund vital research studies such as these. To donate £3, text WCRF03£3 to 70070.


Lucy Eccles | 03 February 2017