More than two thousand years ago Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine, noted that if we all had “the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health”. In general, all too few of us are following Hippocrates’ advice today.

In cancer terms, we know that 4 in 10 cancer cases in the UK could be prevented largely by changes to lifestyle. In this blog post I’ll be looking at one of these changes: being physically active.

Around 1% of cancers in the UK (3,400 cases a year) could be prevented if everyone met the government guidelines for physical activity.  In fact, researchers have estimated that inactivity causes about 9% of all the premature deaths worldwide.

Scientists have found that low levels of physical activity can directly increase the risk of:

  • Breast cancer- high levels of oestrogen increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Physical activity lowers levels of oestrogen (and insulin and growth factors) and so reduces breast cancer risk by 5% (rising to 10% after the menopause).
  • Bowel cancer – Physical activity helps move food waste move through the bowel quickly, reducing the amount of time the bowel lining comes into contact with potentially harmful chemicals e.g. those found in alcohol and red meat, which could cause damage that leads to cancer. Being active also helps control levels of inflammation in the bowel which, although a normal body response to injury or infection, causes cells to multiply more frequently than usual, increasing the chance of mistakes that could lead to cancer.

More importantly… physical activity plays a role in helping manage body weight which increases risk of many other cancers (postmenopausal breast, bowel, womb, oesophagus , stomach, pancreas, kidney, liver, gallbladder, ovarian and aggressive prostate cancers)

Physical inactivity is linked to a catalogue of other health problems including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Despite this figures from the British Heart Foundation show that close to half of British adults say they do no exercise.

The Department of Health recommends that adults should aim to be active daily. Over a week, activity should add up to at least 150 minutes (2½ hours) of moderate intensity activity in bouts of 10 minutes or more – one way to approach this is to do 30 minutes on at least 5 days a week.


They also recommended to take an active break from sitting at regular intervals. When broken down, these recommendations can easily be met with a bit of thought. Rather than setting unreachable goals, or splashing out on expensive gym memberships, the most effective way to boost activity is to build it into daily life.

If you work sitting down, try to find ways to stretch your legs: going for a short walk not only helps the body, but can refresh your mind too, helping you to think more clearly! Try simple measures like walking to your colleagues’ desk rather than emailing; alternating sitting with standing tasks such as photocopying or filing and, if possible, walking around while taking phone calls. Try to do this even when you feel busy!


Travel to and from work is another good way to be more active. Most of us recognise the benefits of active travel, however in 2012 only 16% of Scots travelled to work on foot or by bike. Even if you live a long way from your work there are still things you can do, like walking part of the way, and doing the rest of the journey by public transport. Try using a pedometer to measure your steps and gradually increase the distance you walk.


Cycling is on the rise in Scotland. However, cycle routes around Scotland’s cities remain incomplete and poorly joined up, meaning that many less confident cyclists are put off travelling by bike. Many organisations run cycle training workshops e.g. Bikeability Scotland and Cycle Scotland.


It has never been easier to be active. Whether you live in a big city or a tiny village there is bound to be something you enjoy from traditional gyms and team sports to Zumba, boot camps, yoga and local walking and running groups not too far away! The internet is a great way to find groups and likeminded people nearby – and indeed for finding online video tutorials that can be done from the comfort of your own home.


Finally, it’s great to remember that exercise is great for your state of mind too, releasing endorphins which reduce stress, helping to make you feel happier, calmer and more positive about life. I’ll try to remember this when forcing myself to go for a run on a cold morning!

For more information visit WCRF or CRUK.

– Rachel Pont