Being inactive and cancer risk

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. 

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

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.

We could prevent about one in eight cases of colon and breast cancers, and one in ten cases of womb cancer in the UK by being active for 30 minutes a day at least five times a week. 

Our recommendation is to move more – find out how

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. Physical activity uses calories, so it can help you maintain a healthy weight, which also helps to reduce your risk of many cancers.

How many people in the UK are regularly physically active? 

Government guidelines recommend moderate activity for 150 minutes or more per week, or at least 30 minutes five days a week. However, many of us aren't meeting these guidelines.

  % of men meeting guidelines % of women meeting guidelines
England 63 59
Wales 64 53
Scotland 67 59
N Ire 60 48

 Figures from 2015-16 

Approximately how many cancer cases could be prevented each year if everyone in the UK was regularly physically active?

Type of cancer Amount of cases
  % Number
Breast (post-menopausal) 12 6,400
Bowel (colon) 12 5,100
Womb (endometrium) 10 880

Physical activity statistics come from the Active Lives Survey 2015–16, Year 1 report, Sport England, the Welsh Health Survey 2015, the Scottish Health Survey 2015, and the Health Survey Northern Ireland 2015/16. Find out more about preventability estimates or, for more detailed information, download appendix A of our policy report. Find figures on cancer incidence for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
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