Physical activity and risk of cancer in the UK statistics
This page presents information on the link between physical activity and cancer. It is well known that exercise prevents heart disease. Evidence is growing for a protective effect against cancer. A study published in December 2011 estimated that around 1% of cancers in the UK are linked to physical inactivity. The estimate was higher for women (around 2%) than men (less than 0.5%), reflecting the lower levels of physical activity in women than in men in the UK.33
While it is difficult to separate the effects of physical inactivity from those of increased bodyweight, there is consistent evidence that people with higher levels of physical activity have a reduced risk of colon, breast and endometrial (womb) cancer that is independent of bodyweight.
- Around four in ten men and around three in ten women in England meet government physical activity recommendations.
- Three in ten men and almost four in ten women in England do less than 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per week.
section reviewed 01/06/05
section updated 01/06/11
A meta-analysis of 54 studies reported a 24% risk reduction for colon cancer in the most versus least active men, and a 21% risk reduction in the most active women. Results from both case-control and cohort studies supported the protective association between physical activity and colon cancer.1
Physical activity may affect colon cancer risk in various ways, including by reducing faecal transit time, inflammation and insulin resistance and modifying hormone metabolism.3,4
About 50 studies have looked at the association between physical activity and breast cancer, showing a 15-20% risk reduction for the most active women.5 The risk reduction could be because exercise alters hormone levels.6,7
The most active women have a 20-30% reduced risk of endometrial cancer compared to the least active women, according to a meta-analysis of prospective studies.8 This may be because physical activity reduces levels of serum oestrogen and circulating insulin.8
A study published in December 2011 estimated that more than 3% of breast cancers, more than 5% of colon cancers, and around 4% of endometrial cancers in 2010 were linked to people doing fewer than 150 minutes of physical activity per week.33 Much higher estimates of the proportion of breast cancers (around 18%) and colon cancers (around 19%) due to physical inactivity in the UK have subsequently been published.22 However, it is thought that the way the study was designed may have exaggerated the attributable risk proportion.
A meta-analysis found evidence that people who participate in higher levels of recreational physical activity have a lower risk of lung cancer.9
Since that analysis, results of studies into physical activity and lung cancer risk have been inconsistent.10-13
Some studies have shown a reduced risk of pancreatic cancer for people doing moderate amounts of physical activity,14,15 but other studies do not show an association,16,17 and a recent meta-analysis showed no association of leisure time physical activity on risk of pancreatic cancer.24
There is evidence from three cohort studies that men who are physically active have a reduced risk of advanced prostate cancer.18-20 A recent cohort study showed that men who are more active in their jobs, or do more physical activity throughout their lifetime have a reduced risk of prostate cancer overall.25 The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer showed no association of leisure-time physical activity with prostate cancer risk, although results were indicative of a reduction in risk of advanced prostate cancer with occupational physical activity.28 Another very large cohort study showed no association of physical activity with prostate cancer risk in white men, although there was a risk reduction for black men.29
section reviewed 01/06/05
section updated 01/07/12
Physical activity recommendations for people in the UK were updated in July 2011, as follows:30
- Early years (under 5s): After beginning to walk, under fives should be physically active for at least 180 minutes per day;
- Children and young people (5-18 years): At least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. Vigorous intensity activities that strengthen muscle and bone should be carried out on at least three days a week;
- Adults (19+ years): At least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity over a week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. Physical activity to improve muscle strength should be carried out on at least two days per week.
Levels of physical activity in men and women in England have increased since 1997, but are still relatively low, with 39% of men and 29% of women currently doing at least 150 minutes per week.26 Levels of physical activity decline with age, and in all age groups women are much less likely to meet recommendations than men (Figure 3.1). Physical activity levels are similar elsewhere in the UK.23,31,32
While exercise levels have increased since 1997, 30% of men and 38% of women in England still do less than 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity a week.26
In England, 70% of boys and 59% of girls aged 2-15 are doing at least 60 minutes of moderate intensity activity per day.27
section reviewed 01/06/05
section updated 01/07/12
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- Wolin KY, Yan Y, Colditz GA, et al. Physical activity and colon cancer prevention: a meta-analysis. Br J Cancer 2009; 100(4):611-6.
- Wei EK, Giovannucci E, Wu K, et al. Comparison of risk factors for colon and rectal cancer. Int J Cancer, 2004. 108(3):433-42.
- IARC. IARC Handbooks of Cancer Prevention: Weight control and physical activity. Lyon: IARC Press, 2002.
- World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research Food, nutrition, physical activity and the prevention of cancer: A global perspective. Washington: American Institute for Cancer Research; 2007.
- Monninkhof EM, Elias SG, Vlems FA, et al. Physical activity and breast cancer: a systematic review. Epidemiology 2007; 18(1):137-57.
- McTiernan A, Tworoger SS, Ulrich CM, et al. Effect of exercise on serum estrogens in postmenopausal women: a 12-month randomized clinical trial. Cancer Res 2004; 64(8):2923-8.
- Chan MF, Dowsett M, Folkerd E, et al, Usual physical activity and endogenous sex hormones in postmenopausal women: the European prospective investigation into cancer-norfolk population study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2007; 16(5):900-5.
- Moore SC, Gierach GL, Schatzkin A, et al. Physical activity, sedentary behaviours, and the prevention of endometrial cancer. Br J Cancer 2010; 103(7):933-8.
- Tardon A, Lee WJ, Delgado-Rodriguez M, et al. Leisure-time physical activity and lung cancer: a meta-analysis. Cancer Causes Control 2005; 16(4):389-97.
- Steindorf K, Friedenreich C, Linseisen J, et al. Physical activity and lung cancer risk in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer andNutrition Cohort. Int J Cancer 2006; 119(10):2389-97.
- Bak H, Christensen J, Thomsen BL, et al. Physical activity and risk for lung cancer in a Danish cohort. Int J Cancer 2005; 116(3):439-44.
- Sinner P, Folsom AR, Harnack L, et al. The association of physical activity with lung cancer incidence in a cohort of older women: the Iowa Women's Health Study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2006; 15(12):2359-63.
- Alfano CM, Klesges RC, Murray DM, et al. Physical activity in relation to all-site and lung cancer incidence and mortality in current and former smokers. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2004; 13(12):2233-41.
- Michaud DS, Giovannucci E, Willett WC, et al. Physical activity, obesity, height, and the risk of pancreatic cancer. JAMA 2001; 286(8):921-9.
- Hanley AJ, Johnson KC, Villeneuve PJ, et al. Physical activity, anthropometric factors and risk of pancreatic cancer: results from the Canadian enhanced cancer surveillance system. Int J Cancer 2001; 94(1):140-7.
- Patel AV, Rodriguez C, Bernstein L, et al. Obesity, recreational physical activity, and risk of pancreatic cancer in a large U.S. Cohort. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2005; 14(2):459-66.
- Lin, Y., et al., Obesity, physical activity and the risk of pancreatic cancer in a large Japanese cohort. Int J Cancer, 2007. 120(12):2665-71.
- Lin Y, Kikuchi S, Tamakoshi A, et al. Recreational physical activity and risk of prostate cancer: A prospective population-based study in Norway (the HUNT study). Int J Cancer 2006; 119(12):2943-7.
- Patel AV, Rodriguez C, Jacobs EJ, et al. Recreational physical activity and risk of prostate cancer in a large cohort of u.s. Men. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2005; 14(1):275-9.
- Giovannucci EL, Liu Y, Leitzmann MF, et al. A prospective study of physical activity and incident and fatal prostate cancer. Arch Intern Med 2005; 165(9):1005-10.
- Department of Health Health survey for England 2002 - Trends. London: Department of Health; 2003.
- I-Min Lee, Eric J Shiroma, Felipe Lobelo, et al: The Lancet Physical Activity Series Working Group. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. Lancet, 2012; 380(9838):219-29.
- The Scottish Government, The Scottish Health Survey 2010: Volume 1: Main Report . Edinburgh: The Scottish Government; 2011.
- Bao Y, Michaud DS. Physical activity and pancreatic cancer risk: a systematic review. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2008; 17(10):2671-82.
- Orsini N, Bellocco R, Bottai M, et al. A prospective study of lifetime physical activity and prostate cancer incidence and mortality. Br J Cancer 2009; 101(11):1932-8.
- The NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care Health Survey for England - 2010: Trend tables. London: The NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care; 2011.
- The NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet: England January 2008. London: The NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care: 2008.
- Johnsen NF, Tjønneland A, Thomsen BL, et al. Physical activity and risk of prostate cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) cohort. Int J Cancer 2009; 125(4):902-8.
- Moore SC, Peters TM, Ahn J, et al. Age-specific physical activity and prostate cancer risk among white men and black men. Cancer 2009; 115(21):5060-70.
- Department of Health, Physical Activity, Health Improvement and Protection. Start active, stay active: A report on physical activity from the four home countries' chief medical officers. Department of Health: London 2011.
- The Welsh Assembly Government. The Welsh Health Survey 2010: Initial Headline Results. Cardiff: The Welsh Assembly Government; 2011.
- The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency. 2005/06 Health and Social Wellbeing Survey; Topline Results. Belfast: The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency; 2007.
- Parkin, D.M. Cancers attributable to inadequate physical exercise in the UK in 2010. Br J Cancer, 6 Dec 2011; 105 (S2):S38-S41.