As part of Cancer Prevention Action Week, 19–25 February 2024, ITN Business hosted a live panel discussion in partnership with World Cancer Research Fund, to raise awareness of how being physically active can protect against certain cancers.

The panel discussion, ‘Empowering Lives: Proactive approaches to cancer prevention explored proactive approaches we can take to protect our health, and alleviate our risks of developing cancer, through small bursts of physical activity that fit into our day.

The live panel discussion was hosted by presenter Sue Saville, and featured Dr Helen Croker, Assistant Director of Research and Policy at World Cancer Research Fund; Matt Lambert, Health Information and Promotion Manager at World Cancer Research Fund; and Ellie Philpotts, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma cancer at age 15. She’s now 27, in remission, and strives daily to improve her fitness.

WATCH THE PANEL DISCUSSION

Approved by World Cancer Research Fund


The role of physical activity in protecting our health

It’s estimated that 40% of cancer cases could be prevented, with evidence that physical activity protects against a number of cancers, including breast cancer, colon and endometrial cancers — as well as heart disease and stroke.

For people with busy lives, the reality is that exercise often falls by the wayside. Work, family commitments and caring responsibilities can take precedence over self-care, and as exhaustion creeps in over the course of the day, both time and energy runs low.

Top left: Panel host Sue Saville; top right: Dr Helen Croker; bottom left: Matt Lambert; bottom right, Ellie Philpotts.

A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by World Cancer Research Fund, found that nearly 3 in 4 (72%) of UK adults said that having more time, energy and feeling fitter would motivate them to be more physically active. Interestingly, 40% of women cited tiredness as a reason not to make healthy changes to their diet and activity levels, compared to 29% of men.

Women in mid-late life are among those who can reap significant benefits from increased physical activity and strength training, for the prevention of cancer as well as other health conditions.

“Older women have a lot to gain when it comes to physical activity,” explains Matt Lambert, in the panel discussion. “Yet, we know that women are doing significantly less muscle strengthening activity. For older women — especially women who are post-menopausal — after the menopause, there’s less oestrogen, so they’re at increased risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis (because oestrogen is bone-protective). So, if women are doing muscle and bone strengthening exercises later in life, it can help them with bone density and reduce their risk of osteoporosis later on.”

As part of the panel discussion, our experts shared insights on the important role of incidental exercise or ‘exercise snacking’ which can serve as a great solution for those who struggle to fit physical activity into their day.

Until recently, there has been a lack of research on incidental activity (physical activity that coincides with what we’re doing), but findings of a new study show that even tiny amounts of activity can dramatically reduce cancer risk. 

The research shows that 3.5 minutes per day of vigorous activity, such as climbing stairs, can reduce overall cancer risk by 17-18% compared with no vigorous activity. In fact, half the participants of the study did at least 4.5 minutes a day, and this short amount was associated with a 20–21% reduction in total cancer risk.

Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis and his team at the University of Sydney, who led the research, analysed short bursts of exercise, also known as exercise snacking — or as they have termed it; Vigorous Intermittent Lifestyle Physical Activity (VILPA).

To be classed as ‘vigorous’, the exercise needs to raise your heartbeat, make you sweat, or start to make you feel out of breath. In the UK, the recommendation is that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity, such as stair climbing. 

Exercise snacking in daily life

Short bursts of exercise can be anything from brief periods of power walking, climbing stairs, carrying heavy shopping, vigorous housework or gardening, or energetic playing with children. Lunges, squats, on-the-spot jogging, dancing, weights or push-type exercises like dips, are all activities we can do around our other jobs and day-to-day activities. 

For those who spend a lot of time sedentary or sitting at a desk, the added benefit of exercise snacks is that they can naturally break up periods of prolonged sitting.  

Incorporating small moments of exercise into our lives can be easier than we think — especially when we create new micro habits that we enjoy doing, and are therefore more likely to persist with. It can coincide with waiting at a bus stop, boiling a kettle, talking on the phone, making the bed; there are countless opportunities in an average day to move more and ramp up our levels of physical activity.

World Cancer Research Fund’s website – wcrf.org – offers inspiration for incidental exercise ideas and examples of how real people are incorporating small bursts of activity into their daily life. 

 

Liz Nuttall, 73, from Ulverston in Cumbria:

“Around the house, climbing the stairs provides a handy, free mini workout. I also make a point of walking the 10 minutes into town at least once a day. I’m lucky that shops and local amenities are all fairly close by.”

Mother of three, Caroline Ngari, 44, lives in Belgium:

“I’ve tried exercise snacking here and there, but I’ve not been consistent. I decided to always do some movement when brushing my teeth. It’s worked well for me – if I’m very tired I just pace around while brushing. When I have some energy, I do something like lunges or dance moves while brushing.

Cath, 74, from Richmond in London:

“When I take the escalator, unless I’m carrying a heavy bag, I always walk up. Some of the London Underground ones are really long so they do represent quite a work-out.”

 

“A slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a different destination.” – James Clear, author of Atomic Habits.

Explore more ideas, insights, interviews and films in the realm of cancer care and prevention over on our programme page: Shaping the Future of Cancer Care.