Move more, sit less to reduce your risk of cancer

The Bottom Line

  • Exercise is important for optimal health and wellness; being physically active can help prevent cancer as well as heart disease and other chronic and/or serious diseases.

  • Studies show that exercise is particularly beneficial in reducing the risk of breast and colorectal cancer.

  • Aim for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity.

  • Join a walking/exercise group, or use an activity tracker to stay motivated.

Are you getting enough? Exercise, that is. Whether you enjoy being physically active or you consider it a chore, you probably know how important it is to get regular exercise. The health benefits of exercise range from feeling and looking good, to strengthening your heart and other muscles, to resisting serious diseases - including cancer (1).

Studies have consistently shown that moderate to vigorous physical activity is linked to a lower risk of colorectal and breast cancer (2) and can reduce your risk of dying of breast, prostate, colorectal and other cancers (3:4). How? One way is through weight maintenance. Exercise helps us to maintain a healthy body weight and (along with diet) can help people lose potentially harmful excess weight. Currently, more than 26% of Canadian adults are classified as obese (5), putting them at increased risk for breast, colorectal and other cancers (2). Physical activity also lowers inflammation and insulin levels, which in turn helps lower the risk of some cancers (3:4;6).

Additionally, the more time you spend exercising, the less time you're sitting or lying still. Studies prove that a sedentary lifestyle is a significant risk factor for heart disease and cancer, among other serious health issues (7).

So, how much is enough?

The American Cancer Society recommends that we aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise at moderate intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week (or a combination of these). If possible, it is better to spread your activity throughout the week (8). But if you're just getting back in the game (or on the track) and this sounds ambitious, start by doing what you can. Any increase in your normal level of activity is beneficial (8).

You can gradually work up to the recommended levels but remember, being "physically active" doesn't mean you need to be an Olympic sprinter or marathon runner! Walking is a great option for many people but there are many others: swimming, riding a bike, dancing, playing a sport... as long as you're moving at a good and steady pace, it counts and will help keep you mobile and healthy.

Still not sure how to get started and stay motivated? Here are some tips:

  • Begin by choosing something you like to do (you're more likely to stick with something you enjoy) but be open to trying something new and mixing up your activities.

  • Join the club! Being part of a walking or exercise group may encourage you to attend and participate in activities regularly, particularly if you enjoy the social benefits (9).

  • Use an activity tracker. Devices - from simple pedometers to high tech wearables - let you monitor your progress. Studies show they can motivate people to exercise longer and/or at higher intensities (10).

  • Consider finding a peer-led exercise program or peer-support program in your community. Peer-led exercise programs and peer-support programs may improve adherence to physical activity in older adults (11).  

Last but not least, be aware of how often and how long you are sedentary during the day (e.g. watching TV, relaxing, working on the computer etc.) and try to change your routines to make sure you get up and move regularly. Becoming more physically active is one way to reduce your risk of cancer, protect yourself against other health threats, and live a more vibrant, enjoyable life.

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Author Details


  1. World Health Organization. Cancer prevention. [Internet] n.d. [cited June 2017]. Available from:

  2. World Cancer Research Fund International/American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer: A global perspective. Washington DC: AICR, 2008. Available from:

  3. Ballard-Barbash R, Friedenreich CM, Courneya KS, et al. Physical activity, biomarkers, and disease outcomes in cancer survivors: A systematic review. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2012; 104(11):815-840. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djs207.

  4. Cormie P, Zopf EM, Zhang X, et al. The impact of exercise on cancer mortality, recurrence, and treatment-related adverse effects. Epidemiol Rev. 2017;39:71-92. doi: 10.1093/epirev/mxx007.

  5. Statistics Canada. Health Fact Sheets: Overweight and obese adults, 2018. [Internet] 2019. [cited June 2021]. Available from: 

  6. Winzer BM, Whiteman DC, Reeves MM, et al. Physical activity and cancer prevention: A systematic review of clinical trials. Cancer Causes Control. 2011; 22(6):811-826. doi: 10.1007/s10552-011-9761-4.

  7. Biswas A, Oh PI, Faulkner GE, et al. Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2015; 162(2):123-132. doi: 10.7326/M14-1651.

  8. Kushi LH, Doyle C, McCullough M, et al. American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA Cancer J Clin. 2012 ;62(1):30-67. doi: 10.3322/caac.20140.

  9. Hanson S, Jones A. Is there evidence that walking groups have health benefits? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2015; 49(11):710-715. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2014-094157.

  10. de Vries J, Kooiman T, van Ittersum M, et al. Do activity monitors increase physical activity in adults with overweight or obesity? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity. 2016; 24(10):2078-2091. doi: 10.1002/oby.21619.

  11. Burton E, Farrier K, Hill KD, et al. Effectiveness of peers in delivering programs or motivating older people to increase their participation in physical activity: Systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2018; 36(6): 699-678. 

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.