Physical Activity and Cancer Risk: Get a Move On!

Physical activity at work or during leisure time is linked to a 50% lower risk of getting colon cancer. Both vigorous and moderate levels of physical activity appear to reduce this risk. Physical activity also is connected with a lower risk of breast cancer and possibly prostate and endometrial cancers. Studies continue to look at whether physical activity has a role in reducing the chances of getting other cancers.

Physical activity improves quality of life among cancer patients and survivors. Studies are beginning to explore the potential for physical activity to improve cancer survival. Studies have not yet determined if any specific types of physical activity, such as aerobic, strength, or flexibility training have different effects on cancer outcomes.

Several national groups have recommended that people engage in regular physical activity. Recommendations within the 1997 Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/American College of Sports Medicine suggested engaging in at least 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity for most days of the week. In 2002, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Panel on Dietary Reference Intakes for Macronutrients recommended that adults and children obtain at least 60 minutes of moderately intense physical activity every day. The higher time recommendation was noted to be important for weight maintenance, beyond the health effects achieved with 30 minutes of activity per day. The recent 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines agreed with the IOM report, recommending at least 30 minutes of moderate activity daily to improve health, up to 60 minutes per day to prevent adult weight gain, and as much as 90 minutes per day to prevent regain of weight that has been lost.

Most Recent Estimates

The 2003 National Health Interview Survey, an in-person household survey, indicates that 37% of adults aged 18 and older reported no physical activity in their leisure time.

Results from the 2003 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a telephone survey that used different questions to assess physical activity, show that 24% of adults aged 18 and older reported no physical activity in their leisure time.

The Healthy People 2010 Target aims to reduce to 20% the percent of adults who engage in no leisure-time physical activity.

Groups at High Risk for Being Inactive in Their Leisure Time

Women are more likely than men, and Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than Whites, to report no leisure-time physical activity. Lack of physical activity also is more common among those with less education.

For youth, physical activity is lower among females, especially Blacks. Also, physical activity decreases as children get older.

Key Issues

  • Since the mid 1980s, fewer high school students have taken part in physical education classes.
  • Removing barriers (such as lack of physical education classes) and setting up supports (such as bicycle and walking paths) can help to promote physically active lifestyles.
  • Physical activity appears to be effective in reducing the amount of weight gained during and after treatment of breast cancer.

Links to Additional Information on Physical Activity

Reprinted from: National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Cancer. Available at: Accessed: Nov. 16, 2006.