What are the benefits of exercise?
- Being active can help you keep a healthy weight, which reduces the risk of 13 different types of cancer.
- Exercising regularly can lower the risk of breast cancer and bowel cancer in particular.
- Being active has many benefits – it keeps your body and mind healthy. The more you can do, the better!
There are lots of benefits of exercise, including reducing your risk of cancer. This page explains the benefits of exercising and physical activity.
Being active can also be helpful for many people with cancer, during and after their treatment. We have a separate page about physical activity for people with cancer.
Why is being active important?
The benefits of physical activity include:
- Keeping a healthy weight
- Reducing the risk of cancer
- Improving mood and reducing stress
- Reducing the risk of heart disease
- Reducing the risk of osteoarthritis
- Reducing the risk of dementia and depression
- Reducing the risk of falls in older adults
- Learning new skills
Any amount of activity is good for you, but the more active you are the greater the benefits!
You don’t need to become a marathon runner or join the gym to be more active – you don’t even have to leave your home! Anything that gets you a bit warmer, slightly out of breath, and your heart beating faster counts. Find out about how to be more active.
Being active can help you keep a healthy weight and reduce your risk of cancer
Even adding small amounts of activity and exercise into your daily routine can help you lose weight or keep a healthy weight.
Keeping a healthy weight lowers your risk of 13 different cancer types. This includes two of the most common types of cancer (breast and bowel) and three of the hardest to treat cancers (pancreatic, oesophageal and gallbladder).
Check out our 10 top tips for a healthy weight.
Learn more about weight and cancer risk.
How does exercise and being active help prevent cancer?
Being physically active lowers cancer risk by helping you to keep a healthy weight. Being physically active may also lower your risk of breast cancer and bowel cancer in a way that is not related to being a healthy weight. But it isn’t clear yet how much.
Overall, the more active you can be the more you can lower your risk of cancer – especially breast cancer and bowel cancer. So even if you start by doing small amounts of activity you can build it up over time.
Scientists have some theories on how doing a lot of physical activity may prevent breast cancer and bowel cancer. Most of these benefits are also linked to being a healthy weight.
Being active and being a healthy weight can reduce the levels of oestrogen and insulin in the body. Oestrogen and insulin are hormones that can encourage breast cells to divide more often, which increases the risk of cancer.
Being active and being a healthy weight can help your immune system to work at its best. This means the body can be better at spotting, and dealing with, cells which could go on to become cancer.
Being active helps move food through our bowel faster. This means anything harmful in the food we eat and the waste we excrete (poo) spends less time in our bowel. This may help to prevent bowel cancer.
Being active and being a healthy weight reduces inflammation. Too much inflammation can cause our cells to divide more often, increasing cancer risk.
Should I try to sit less?
Sitting or lying down for long periods of time throughout the day (being inactive) isn’t good for our health. Even people who do lots of exercise might spend too much time being inactive during the rest of the day.
If you do spend long periods of time being inactive at home or at work, it’s a good idea to get up and move about regularly if you are able to do so. Try going for a walk on your lunch break, doing bits of housework, regularly going to get a drink of water, or moving on the spot when taking phone calls. There are also seated exercises you can do to move the body.
It’s not clear yet if spending lots of time sitting or lying down increases the risk of cancer. This is an area of research that is still developing, and we need more good quality research that considers the impact of inactivity, physical activity and weight on the risk of cancer.
Kyu HH, Bachman VF, Alexander LT, et al. Physical activity and risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and ischemic stroke events: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. Bmj. 2016:i3857. doi:10.1136/bmj.i3857
Matthews CE, Moore SC, Arem H, et al. Amount and Intensity of Leisure-Time Physical Activity and Lower Cancer Risk. J Clin Oncol. 2020 Mar 1;38(7):686-697. doi: 10.1200/JCO.19.02407
World Cancer Research Fund. Physical Activity and the Risk of Cancer. World Cancer Research Fund International; 2018. https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/exposures/physical-activity
Hermelin R, Leitzmann MF, Markozannes G, et al. Sedentary behavior and cancer–an umbrella review and meta-analysis. Eur J Epidemiol. 2022 May; 37(5): 447–460. doi: 10.1007/s10654-022-00873-6.