Being physically active helps prevent cancer


On World Cancer Day on 4 February, WHO/Europe points at physical activity as an effective means to prevent cancer, together with avoiding tobacco and following a healthy diet, and invites policy-makers to strengthen efforts to encourage active transport.

Physical activity is associated with a reduction in the overall risk of cancer, and in particular of colon and breast cancers

  • The risk of colon cancer is around 40% lower for active people. For the general adult population, this means to accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous activity
  • The risk of breast cancer is 20-80% lower for active women
  • Vigorous activity, usually involving sport or exercise, may provide a protective effect against prostate cancer in men
  • Being active also has an indirect effect in cancer prevention by helping maintaining a healthy weight.

Socioeconomic status influences how active or inactive people are. People with lower incomes have disproportionately higher rates of the chronic diseases and obesity associated with less physical activity and unhealthy eating patterns.

Options for cancer prevention through physical activity

WHO/Europe supports countries in developing and implementing tailored policies that promote an active lifestyle preventing cancer and other diseases through multisectoral approaches. The collaboration of health and other sectors - like transport, urban planning, education, tourism, sport and leisure - is crucial to provide social and environmental conditions facilitating physical activity. This is a prerequisite for getting more people engaged in active lifestyles through all settings of daily life.

  • Primary health care plays a crucial role in physical activity promotion
    The strongest evidence of benefit for interventions at an individual level is within the primary care setting. The health sector should ensure that the promotion of physical activity is an integral part of primary care practice.

  • Active transport creates synergies to reduce cancer
    The transport system and urban planning can strongly influence opportunities to be physically active, both by facilitating walking and cycling and by enabling access to spaces for leisure time physical activity, e.g. green areas. This also has several beneficial ‘side effects’, like the decrease of air pollution levels and the economic savings from improved health.

    Through the Transport, Health and Environment Pan-European Programme (THE PEP), a joint initiative with the UNECE, WHO/Europe promotes safe walking and cycling in urban areas. Ways to achieve this objective include promotion of evidence-based good practice on physical activity and development of tools for planning and for the economic assessment of physical activity as a means of transport, such as the health and economic assessment tool (HEAT) for cycling, developed in collaboration with HEPA Europe.

The WHO Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health, targeting national and regional policy-makers, offer guidance on the frequency, duration, intensity, type and total amount of physical activity needed for the prevention of non communicable diseases and are meant to be the basis for the development of national policies.