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Physical activity and cancer

Learn more about your fitness and how it can raise or lower your risk of developing cancer.

Physical activity reduces your cancer risk

There is clear evidence that physical activity and exercise can reduce your risk of breast, bowel and womb cancer. It may also help prevent lung cancer. And physical activity does not just reduce your risk of cancer. There are many other benefits and it is one of the most important things you can do for your health.

It can help:

  • Control your weight
  • Reduce your risk of heart disease
  • Reduce your risk of diabetes
  • Strengthen your bones and muscles
  • Improve your mental health and mood
  • Increase your chances of living longer

How active do I need to be?

Every little helps, but the more activity the better. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week. Moderate physical activity is activity that makes you a little out of puff, but where you are able to talk comfortably. It doesn’t have to be strenuous to be effective. Anything that makes you breathe a little deeper and your heart beat a little faster is ideal.

Try and build up the exercise you are doing gradually. You can do this by walking a little farther each week or getting a little faster. The more active you are, the more you can reduce your risk of cancer.

If you are already active for 30 minutes a day, you could step up your effort and cut your chances even more. More vigorous activity does give you additional benefits. This is the type of activity that will cause you to huff and puff, and make holding a conversation difficult.

Tips for getting fit

It may sound like a tired old cliché, but choices such as taking the stairs instead of the lift or escalator really do make a difference. Remember, you do not have to do 30 minutes of activity all at once to be healthy. Instead, you can spread small bursts of activity out over the course of the day. And activities such as gardening, washing windows, and playing outside with the kids count too.

Here are some handy tips for getting fit your way.

  • Build it up. Start with a level of activity that feels achievable, and gradually increase the frequency, time, and intensity. For example, you might begin with 15 minutes of daily activity for the first week, and then increase your time to 20 minutes a day the next week. Set small, achievable goals each week.
  • Buddy up. Getting fit with a friend can be more fun and more effective because you can spur each other on. You are also less likely to talk yourself out of exercising!
  • Walk your way to fitness. Walk whenever and wherever possible. Get the best out of your walk by reading our tips in the section "Get fit on a budget".
  • Stand more, sit less. For example, try standing or walking when you are on the phone.
  • Get on your bike. If you are lucky enough to have a bike, cycle to your destination. If you have to travel some distance, try cycling part of the journey.
  • Work it. At work, take a brisk walk at lunchtime. If you are at a desk all day, walk to a colleague’s desk instead of emailing, or take a minute or two every hour to get up and stretch.
  • Healthy housework. Household chores such as brisk hoovering, window washing, gardening and mowing the lawn all count. Just make sure you are putting enough effort into these activities to leave you a little out of puff.
  • Family fitness. If parents are physically active, children are more likely to follow their example and be active too. Activities such as walking your kids to and from school, playing with them outside and going for a family bike ride are great for the family to get fit together.
  • Track your progress. Keep track of your daily activity levels every week and see those minutes rack up!

Exercise your options

To get on track and stay on track, try different types of exercises and activities. The chart below gives examples of different kinds of physical activity, and describes how each activity is good for you. You can also use our Physical Activity Pyramid to plan what activities you might build into your everyday life.

Type of activityExamplesPotential benefits
Everyday activities
  • Washing the car
  • Hoovering
  • Taking the stairs instead of the lift
  • Walking the dog
  • Mowing the lawn
  • Burns calories
  • Improves health
Aerobic exercise
  • Brisk walking
  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Hiking
  • Improves fitness
  • Burns calories
  • Helps weight loss
  • Improves mental wellbeing


  • Tennis
  • Basketball
  • Hurling
  • Camogie
  • Improves fitness
  • Builds strength
  • Improves co-ordination
  • Burns calories

Strength training

  • Lifting weights
  • Crunches
  • Push-ups
  • Improves strength
  • Increases muscle size
  • Burns calories
  • Helps weight loss

Flexibility training

  • Traditional stretching
  • Pilates
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Reduces injury risk
  • Improves blood flow
  • Helps recovery from muscle soreness

Get fit on a budget

Note: Links to external websites are included below. The Irish Cancer Society is not responsible for the content of external websites.

Getting fit does not have to cost and arm and a leg. There are many cheap activities that you can do on your own or with a friend that do not involve equipment or technical expertise. Here are a few thrifty tips from us.


Walking is a super way to get fit for free and it is also a great way to boost your mood. The faster, farther and more frequently you walk, the greater the benefits. Any shoes or runners that are comfortable, provide adequate support and don't cause blisters will do. Plan your routes ahead and discover new sights or parks in your area. The website is a great resource with details of walking and hiking trails in every county in Ireland and the website gives information on walking groups in your area.

To get the most out of your walk, make sure that your posture is correct:

  • Keep your head up and look forward.
  • Relax your shoulders and neck.
  • Pull in your tummy muscles and keep your back straight.
  • Walk smoothly, rolling your foot from heel to toe.
  • Swing your arms freely with a slight bend in your elbows.

And don’t forget to begin each walk slowly and gradually increase your pace. Towards the end of your walk, gradually slow down your pace to cool down.


Check to see if there is a public swimming pool near your home or workplace. Most pools offer lessons if you are a beginner or you want to improve.

Swimming exercises the whole body and is a great way to tone up. Doing a few lengths of the pool involves most of the muscle groups in your body. If you increase the pace, you will get an aerobic workout too.

Bring the gym home

Bringing the gym class into the comfort of your own home can save you a lot of money and can be just as effective. There are plenty of online exercise videos that provide easy-to-follow steps that can be performed in time with a fitness expert. For example, YouTube provides thousands of workout video options. From short videos that offer a fast workout to longer videos for a complete workout, choose what work best for your lifestyle and fitness level.

If you cannot access the internet easily, there are also plenty of fitness books and DVDs to guide you. Your local library might be a good place to start to see what is available and what suits you best.


The website  is a great resource for people of all ages who want to be more active. It also has a list of popular apps which you can try if you have a smart phone, many of which are free.

Further resources

The HSE and the Department of Health and Children have produced The National Guidelines on Physical Activity for Ireland to support the promotion of physical activity in Ireland.  More information here:

For more information

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