Physical activity

Along with other healthy lifestyle behaviours, physical activity reduces cancer risk. There is convincing evidence that physical activity protects against cancer of the:

  • Bowel
This means that studies have shown that people who are physically active are less likely to get bowel cancer than people who are not active.
There is also probable evidence that physical activity protects against:
  • Breast cancer (postmenopausal)
  • Endometrial (lining of the womb) cancer

Physical activity has also been linked to a reduced risk of cancer of the oesophagus, lung, liver and breast (premenopausal).

Being physically active helps achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. So it indirectly helps protect against cancers related to being overweight or obese. These include:

  • Oesophageal cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Bowel cancer
  • Breast cancer (postmenopausal)
  • Endometrial cancer (lining of the womb or uterus)
  • Kidney cancer

Other benefits of physical activity

Regular physical activity also reduces your risk of:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Constipation
  • Falls and disability
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stress
  • Type 2 diabetes

Regular physical activity also promotes:

  • Balance
  • Bone strength
  • Coordination
  • Energy
  • Flexibility
  • General wellbeing
  • Muscle strength and function

Physical activity can also have a positive effect on the environment as walking or cycling instead of driving a car creates less greenhouse gases, pollution and traffic congestion. Active transport also helps to save on fuel costs and being physically active can make you feel great!

So what should I do?

For cancer prevention the more physically active you are the better. We recommend that you follow Australia's Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines. These guidelines are based on the best current evidence on how physical activity and sedentary behaviour (sitting time) affect our health.

Australia's national physical activity recommendations for children aged 0-5 years

These recommendations are for all children aged Birth to 5 years who have not yet started school, irrespective of cultural background, gender or ability.

Physical Activity Recommendations

For healthy growth and development in:

  • Infants (Birth to one year) physical activity particularly through supervised interactive floor-based play in safe environments should be encouraged from birth. For those not yet mobile, 30 minutes of tummy time including reaching and grasping, pushing and pulling, and crawling spread throughout the day during awake periods is encouraged.
  • Toddlers (1 to 2 years) should spend at least 180 minutes a day doing a variety of physical activities including energetic play such as running, jumping and twirling spread throughout the day- noting more is better.
  • Pre-schoolers (3 to 5 years) should spend at least 180 minutes a day in a variety of physical activities, of which 60 minutes is energetic play such as running, jumping and kicking and throwing, spread throughout the day - noting more is better.

Sedentary Behaviour Recommendations

  • Infants (Birth to one year) should not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time (e.g. in a stroller, car seat or high chair). Infants should also not spend any time watching television or using other electronic media (DVDs, computer and other electronic games) and instead, when sedentary, the caregiver is encouraged to engage with them through activities such as reading, singing, puzzles and storytelling.
  • Toddlers (aged 1-2 years) should not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time (e.g. in a stroller, car seat or high chair) or sit for extended periods. For those toddlers younger than 2 years, screen time is not recommended during sedentary periods. For those aged 2 years, screen time should be no more than 1 hour in total throughout the 24-hour period- less is better. When toddlers are sedentary, the caregiver is encouraged to engage with them through activities such as reading, singing, puzzles and storytelling.
  • Pre-schoolers (aged 3-5 years) should not be restrained, for more than 1 hour at a time e.g. in a stroller or car seat) or sitting for extended periods. Sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour in total throughout the 24-hour period -less is better. When pre-schoolers are sedentary, caregivers are encouraged to engage with them through activities such as reading, singing, puzzles and storytelling.

Australia's physical activity recommendations for children aged 5-17 years

These Guidelines are for all children aged 5-17 years, irrespective of cultural background, gender or ability.

Physical Activity Guidelines

  • For health benefits, children aged 5-17 years should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day.
  • Children's physical activity should include a variety of aerobic activities, including some vigorous intensity activity.
  • On at least three days per week, children should engage in activities that strengthen muscle and bone.
  • To achieve additional health benefits, children should engage in more activity - up to several hours per day.

Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines

To reduce health risks, children aged 5-17 years should minimise the time they spend being sedentary every day. To achieve this:

  • Limit use of electronic media for entertainment (e.g. television, seated electronic games and computer use) to no more than two hours a day - lower levels are associated with reduced health risks.
  • Break up long periods of sitting as often as possible.

Australia's national physical activity recommendations for adults (18-64 years)

Being physically active and limiting your sedentary behaviour every day is essential for health and wellbeing. These guidelines are for all adults aged 18 - 64 years, irrespective of cultural background, gender or ability.

Physical Activity Guidelines

  • Doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If you currently do no physical activity, start by doing some, and gradually build up to the recommended amount.
  • Be active on most, preferably all, days every week.
  • Accumulate 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.
  • Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.
Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines
  • Minimise the amount of time spent in prolonged sitting.
  • Break up long periods of sitting as often as possible.

Australia's national physical activity recommendations for older adults (65 years and older)

Being physically active and staying fit and healthy will help you to get the most out of life, whatever your age. These recommendations are designed to help older Australians achieve sufficient physical activity for good health as they age. They are mainly for people who are not currently building 30 minutes of physical activity into their daily lives, and are looking for ways they can do so.

Being physically active for 30 minutes every day is achievable and even a slight increase in activity can make a difference to your health and wellbeing.

Physical Activity Recommendations

There are five physical activity recommendations for older Australians:

  1. Older people should do some form of physical activity, no matter what their age, weight, health problems or abilities. 
  2. Older people should be active every day in as many ways as possible, doing a range of physical activities that incorporate fitness, strength, balance and flexibility. 
  3. Older people should accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days. 
  4. Older people who have stopped physical activity, or who are starting a new physical activity, should start at a level that is easily manageable and gradually build up the recommended amount, type and frequency of activity. 
  5. Older people who continue to enjoy a lifetime of vigorous physical activity should carry on doing so in a manner suited to their capability into later life, provided recommended safety procedures and guidelines are adhered to.

How do I get started?

Being active, like healthy eating, requires some thought each day and should be a regular part of everyday life no matter what age you are. Every little effort adds up to making a real difference to health and wellbeing. The best way to get started is to find an activity or sport which you enjoy, is convenient and affordable.

If you have children, try taking up an activity that you can enjoy as a family or change your routine and walk to school instead of driving. Get friends to join you as they will provide company and motivation. If you plan to meet a friend it is more likely you will go ahead with the activity.

Incorporate as much incidental activity into your day as you can. For example, park the car further away than usual from work to get some extra walking in. Week by week, set goals and challenge yourself to build up your physical activity levels.

Having a pedometer (a small device that measures the number of steps taken) will help you keep track of how many steps you've taken and how far you have walked.

Tips to increase the activity in your day

  • Take the dog for regular walks
  • Consider different activities such as playing golf, badminton or tai-chi
  • Do gardening or vigorous housework
  • While watching television, do stretching exercises
  • Get off the bus one stop earlier and walk the rest of the way
  • Start a walking group with work colleagues during your lunch break
  • Go and talk to your colleagues instead of calling or sending an email
  • Aim to get at least 10,000 steps or more a day if you have a pedometer
  • Try different walking locations to keep it interesting
  • Train for an event, such as Run for a Reason. This is great for motivation!

Types of physical activity

Active transport: using physical activity as transport (e.g. by foot or bicycle) to get from one destination to another. Use of public transport is also included if it involves walking or cycling to pick-up and drop-off points.

Incidental activity: when physical activity is done as part of your daily routine. It is usually spontaneous and convenient (e.g. taking the stairs instead of the lift).

Planned activity: when you set out to be active such as meeting a friend for a walk, going for a swim at the local pool or cycling around the river.

Organised sport: by enrolling in sports such as tennis, football, netball or swimming you make a commitment to attend. As well as the physical benefits, organised sport is a great way to meet new friends and helps to develop teamwork skills.

Remember to be SunSmart and protect yourself in five ways when being physically active outdoors:

Do I need to see my doctor before starting an exercise program?

  • If you are well and do not have any medical concerns or questions and plan to be physically active at moderate-intensity for 30 minutes, you do not need to consult with your doctor before beginning.
  • If you have any cardiovascular symptoms (e.g. chest pain) or a history of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, other active chronic disease, any medical concern or you are pregnant, you should consult your doctor before increasing the intensity or duration of your activity.
  • If you have any doubts or concerns at all about starting or increasing your activity levels you should consult your doctor.

How do I know what type or combination of physical activity suits me?

For the greatest benefit enjoy a variety of different types of activities, including:
Aerobic activity (cardiovascular) uses large muscle groups and results in an increased heart rate and improves heart and lung function. To get the most benefit from aerobic activity, it needs to be intense, frequent and of adequate duration. Follow the recommendation of at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every day, aiming for 60 minutes of moderate intensity or 30 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity every day.

Resistance activity (strength) increases muscle strength, function, endurance and bone strength. Resistance exercises should be performed at least 2 times a week, on non-consecutive days. Complete 1-4 sets of 8-10 different exercises each session. Choose exercises that target the major muscles of the arms, legs and body. Each set should include 8-12 repetitions of the movement. It is important to perform the correct technique to avoid injury and rest for 60-90 seconds between sets.

Flexibility (stretches) lengthens muscles and tendons and improves flexibility and strength of joints and muscles. Include stretches before and after activity and/or on their own 3-4 times a week. It is important to stretch the major muscles of the arms, legs and body. Hold stretches for 15-30 seconds.

How do I know the intensity of the activity I am doing?

Use the Talk Test. While performing light intensity activity you should be able to sing.
During moderate-intensity activity you should be able to carry on a conversation comfortably and during vigorous-intensity exercise you should be too out of breath to carry on a conversation.

Is physical activity beneficial while I am on cancer treatment?

Research suggests that physical activity has a beneficial role for most patients during and after cancer treatment. Cancer patients often experience side effects during cancer treatment. Physical activity can help combat many of the side effects, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Anaemia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle wasting
  • Depression and anxiety

Regular physical activity should complement your cancer treatment. After your treatment has finished, being physically active may help prevent the cancer coming back, and can help boost your energy levels and general quality of life.

For more information talk to your doctor and contact the Cancer Council 13 11 20 for our ‘Exercise for people living with cancer' booklet.

Where to go for more information

A number of organisations are working to promote the many benefits of physical activity. To find out more about some of the different programs available in Western Australia and throughout the rest of the country choose from the links below:

Western Australian Campaigns

  • LiveLighter is a statewide program formed by the Heart Foundation WA and Cancer Council in collaboration with the WA Department of Health. LiveLighter aims to encourage Western Australian adults to lead healthier lifestyles - to make changes to what they eat and drink, and be more active.

Western Australian Organisations

  • Department of Sport and Recreation, Government of Western Australia is responsible for the implementation of government policy and initiatives in sport and recreation. A key role of the department is to contribute to the healthy lifestyle of Western Australians by increasing physical activity in the community through sport and recreation.

National Campaigns

  • Measure Up Campaign is part of the Australian Better Health Initiative (ABHI), a national program, supported by the Australian and state and territory governments. It aims to reduce the risk factors for chronic diseases, such as some cancers, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, by promoting healthier lifestyle behaviours.
  • Shape Up Australia aims to help Australians reduce their waist measurements and improve their overall health and wellbeing. There are many everyday changes you can make to help you Shape Up and get on your way to a healthier lifestyle.

National organisations, websites and documents

  • Healthy Weight Website is an initiative of the Australian Government, Department of Health and Ageing. It provides information and advice on healthy body weight, healthy eating and physical activity.
  • National Heart Foundation aims to save lives and improve health through funding cardiovascular research, providing guidelines for health professionals, informing the public and assisting people with cardiovascular disease.
  • Physical Activity Recommendations developed by the Australian Government, Department of Health and Ageing, outline the minimum levels of physical activity required to gain a health benefit and ways to incorporate incidental physical activity into everyday life.

To find out more about how physical activity can reduce your cancer risk see the resources below:

Cancer Council Australia's position statement on Physical Activity and Cancer Prevention


Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research, 2007.