What are the benefits of exercise?
- Keeping active can help you lose weight or keep a healthy weight, which reduces the risk of 13 different types of cancer.
- And if you’re exercising a lot, it can help prevent breast and bowel cancer.
- Being active matters – it keeps your body and mind healthy, prevents disease and has many other benefits.
Not all cancers can be prevented, but there are proven ways you can reduce your risk. This page covers the benefits of exercise, including how it can help to reduce the risk of cancer.
Being active can also be helpful for many people with cancer during and after treatment. We have a separate page if you’d like to learn more about physical activity for people with cancer.
The more active you are, the greater the benefits could be. How might you and your family benefit from being more active?:
- Keep a healthy weight
- Reduce the risk of cancer
- Improve mood and reduce stress
- Reduce the risk of heart disease
- Reduce the risk of osteoarthritis
- Reduce the risk of dementia and depression
- Reduce the risk of falls in older adults
- Learn new skills
You don’t need to become a marathon runner overnight, or join the gym to be more active – you don’t even have to leave your home. What counts as exercise may surprise you. From playing family games, to doing household chores, read our advice on how to be more active.
Keeping a healthy weight
Even adding small amounts of activity 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 2 of the most common types of cancer (breast and bowel) and 3 of the hardest to treat cancers (pancreatic, oesophageal and gallbladder).
But we know that keeping a healthy weight isn’t always easy. If you’re thinking about losing weight, check out our 10 simple top tips for a healthy weight.
Learn more about weight and cancer risk.
How does exercise and being active help prevent breast cancer?
Being physically active lowers breast cancer risk by helping us to keep a healthy weight. And there’s also evidence that doing lots of exercise can prevent breast cancer directly, in ways not related to our weight.
Scientists are looking at how this might happen. Here are 2 possible ways being active could prevent breast cancer:
Reducing hormone levels
Both being active and the amount of fat you have can affect the levels of some types of hormones in the body. Hormones are chemical messages that move around the body to tell different parts what to do.
Oestrogen and insulin are hormones that could encourage breast cells to divide more often. If cells divide too much and grow out of control this can lead to cancer.
As keeping a healthy weight and doing lots of activity can reduce the levels of oestrogen and insulin in the body, this could help to prevent breast cancer.
Boosting the immune system
Being very active can give your immune system a boost, which makes it work more effectively. This means the body gets better at spotting cells which could go on to become cancer. It can then remove these cells before they cause harm.
How does exercise and being active help prevent bowel cancer?
We know that moving more and sitting less prevents bowel cancer by helping us to keep a healthy weight. There’s also evidence that being very physically active can reduce your risk of bowel cancer directly.
These are some of the possible ways being active could help to prevent bowel cancer:
Moving food through the bowel faster
The bowel helps us use the food we eat and breaks down anything we don’t need. This passes out of our bodies as poo.
Being active helps move food through our bodies faster. This means anything harmful in food waste spends less time in our bowel, which may help to prevent bowel cancer.
Inflammation is a normal way our bodies respond to damage. But if there’s too much, it can cause our cells to multiply more often, increasing cancer risk.
Keeping a healthy weight reduces the risk of 13 cancer types. One of the reasons for this is that having less body fat can reduce inflammation levels around the body. It’s also possible that being very active helps prevent bowel cancer directly by reducing levels of inflammation in the bowel.
Does exercise and being active reduce lung cancer risk?
Being active doesn’t reduce the risk of lung cancer.
A few studies have shown a reduced risk in people who are more active, but some of these studies didn’t fully consider the effect of smoking.
In the UK, more than 7 in 10 lung cancer cases are caused by smoking. If you do smoke, stopping completely is the best thing you can do for your health. Read our ‘How do I stop smoking?’ page if you’re looking for free support to help you stop for good.
Should I try to sit down less?
Sitting or lying down for long periods of time throughout the day 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.
It’s not yet clear if spending lots of time sitting or lying down can increase the risk of cancer. This is an area of research that is still developing. Most studies haven’t taken weight or physical activity fully into account. This means that the results could be misleading.
But if you do spend long periods of time sitting at home or at work, it’s a good idea to get up and move about more regularly. Try going for a glass of water, doing bits of housework, or walking on the spot when taking calls.
Find out how to build more activity into your day and stay motivated.
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
Rezende LFM, Sá TH, Markozannes G, Rey-López JP, et al. Physical activity and cancer: an umbrella review of the literature including 22 major anatomical sites and 770 000 cancer cases. Br J Sports Med. 2018 Jul;52(13):826-833. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2017-098391. Epub 2017 Nov 16. PMID: 29146752.
World Cancer Research Fund AI for CR. Physical Activity and the Risk of Cancer. World Cancer Research Fund International; 2018. https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/exposures/physical-activity
Ma, P., Yao, Y., Sun, W., Dai, S., Zhou C. Daily sedentary time and its association with risk for colorectal cancer in adults: A dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Med. 2017;96(22):e7049.
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Find fitness activities in your area on the NHS website
For healthy food and activity tips for you and your children go to the NHS page Change4Life