Cancer Council Australia

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Nutrition and physical activity

Evidence shows that being overweight, having a poor diet, drinking alcohol and doing little or no exercise all increase your risk of developing certain cancers.

Poor nutrition and lack of physical activity also cause type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, arthritis and falls, accounting for nearly 20% of all disease and injury in Australia today.

 Explore this section:

Body weight

Find out how your body weight can affect your risk of developing certain types of cancer.
More about body weight

Food and nutrition

Find out how your diet can reduce or increase your risk of cancer.
More about food and nutrition

Physical activity

Being physically inactive can increase your risk of developing cancer.
More about physical activity


Find out how drinking alcohol can increase your risk of developing cancer.
More about alcohol

Cancer patients and diets

Learn how to eat well while going through cancer treatment
More about cancer patients and diets

National Secondary Students' Diet and Physical Activity survey

The NaSSDA survey is conducted to help fill the significant gap in data on obesity, diet and physical activity in secondary school students at both a state and national level.
More about national secondary students' diet and physical activity survey

Northern Territory specific content

Why does physical activity play a role in cancer prevention?

In previous years it has been a common belief that cancer is a disease where the risk factors were out of our control. However, scientific evidence continues to evolve and the significant role that physical activity plays in cancer prevention has been brought into focus.

Physical inactivity has been identified as an important risk factor for bowel, breast and possibly prostate, uterine and lung cancer. Being physically active also helps to maintain a healthy body weight. This indirectly protects against many cancers that are linked to being overweight or obese (1).

Abdominal obesity and physical inactivity are associated with erectile dysfunction (impotence) in men (2). Regular physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, falls and disability, constipation and also relieves stress, anxiety and depression. It promotes balance, bone strength, coordination, energy, flexibility, general wellbeing, muscle strength and function (3). Being physically active regulates hormones such as insulin-like growth factor and estrogen, and increases transit time (the speed that food passes through the bowel) which decreases contact with potential carcinogens or cancer causing agents (4).

Data from the 2004-2005 National Health Survey found that 70% of Australian adults were classified as sedentary or having low exercise levels. 48% of Australian adults also reported no or very little exercise two weeks prior to the survey (a sedentary exercise level that is not considered sufficient to obtain health benefits) (5).

How can you reduce your risk?

Cancer Council NT supports and encourages the National Physical Activity Guidelines (6):

Physical activity recommendations for children 5-12 years old:

  • Children need at least 60 minutes (and up to several hours) of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day;
  • Children should not spend more than two hours a day using electronic media for entertainment (e.g. computer games, TV, internet), particularly during daylight hours.

Physical activity recommendations for 12-18 year olds:

  • At least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day;
  • No more than two hours a day using electronic media for entertainment (e.g. computer games, TV, internet), particularly during daylight hours.

Physical activity recommendations for adults:

  • Think of movement as an opportunity not an inconvenience;
  • Be active every day in as many ways as you can;
  • Put together at least 30 minutes of moderate ? intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days;
  • If you can, also enjoy some regular, vigorous activity for extra health and fitness.

Physical activity recommendations for older adults:

  • Older people should do some form of physical activity, no matter what their age, weight, health problems or abilities;
  • 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;
  • Older people should accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days;
  • 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;
  • 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.

There is evidence that greater frequency and intensity of physical activity are linked to reduced cancer risk. It has also been estimated that 30 to 60 minutes per day of more intense physical activity is needed to see the greatest risk reduction (1).

How do you know the intensity of an activity:

Use the talk test: you should be able to sing during light-intensity exercise; during moderate-intensity exercise (walking) you should be able to carry out a conversation comfortably; and during vigorous-intensity exercise (running, cycling up hill) you should be too out of breath to hold a conversation.

Cancer Council NT supports the recommendation that people work towards doing:

30 minutes or more of vigorous activity each day


60 minutes or more of moderate intensity activity each day


Seeing a 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 a moderate-intensity level for 30 minutes there is no need to consult your doctor before commencing;

If you have any cardiovascular symptoms (e. chest pain) or a history of cardiovascular, respiratory or other active chronic disease, diabetes, any medical concern or are pregnant, it is recommended you consult you doctor prior to commencing an exercise program;

If you have any doubts or concerns about starting or increasing intensity of activity levels please consult your doctor.

Waist measurements

Fat tissue that accumulates around the abdominal organs and enlarged waist circumferences, are associated with an increased risk of chronic disease including cancer.

Increased risk

Men: 94 cm

Women: 80 cm

Greatly increased risk

Men: 102cm

Women: 88cm

Measurements are for all adults regardless of height and build. Measurements that indicate increased risks for children and young people have not yet been developed (7).

Sun protection

In the Northern Territory, ultraviolet (UV) radiation levels are above three all year round (8). Please try and avoid outdoor activity during peak UV periods (10am ? 3pm), or when the UV index is 3 and above.

When engaging in daytime outdoor physical activity in peak UV periods, do it safely! Remember to protect your skin:

Slip on a shirt

Slop on sunscreen

Slap on a sun protective hat

Seek shade

Slide on sunglass

So what?s holding you back?

?I don?t have enough time?:

Many of us find time to watch a few hours of TV every night so why not cut this back by half an hour to treat and challenge your muscles with a bit of movement. If you really can?t miss that show, why not do some stretching exercises at the same time.

Moderate-intensity activity should be carried out for at least 10 minutes without stopping. The National Physical Activity Guidelines advise adults to do at least 30 minutes per day however this can be broken up into two 15 minute sessions or three 10 minute sessions. This makes it even easier for us to achieve health!

?I don?t have money for a gym membership?:

Go for a walk, your dog and your body will love you for it!

Get off the bus a stop earlier or park your car a little further away from your location, get stuck into those weeds in your garden that are getting out of control, join a walking group (see Heart Foundation Walks). Think of movement as your opportunity!

?I don?t have any energy?:

The beauty of physical activity is that it actually increases our energy levels. Give it a go and see for yourself. Try doing 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity every day for 10 days and observe this increase in energy and your improving level of fitness.

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

The Talk Test is a good indicator to assess exercise intensity level. By judging your ability to talk during a workout, you can determine what level of intensity you are working at. If you can sing while exercising you are working at a low intensity level, if you are able to hold a conversation while exercising, you are working at a moderate level. If you are unable to hold a conversation you are working at a moderate-vigorous level.

?Do I need to speak to a doctor before starting an exercise routine??

If you do not have any medical concerns, are feeling well and are planning to do 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, you should not need to see your doctor.

If you have any heart symptoms (e.g. chest pain), a history of heart disease, respiratory disease, other chronic diseases, any medicalconcerns and questions or are pregnant, you should consult your doctor prior to increasing duration or intensity of any physical activity.

For more information

Physical activity guidelines

Healthy weight website

How do you measure up website:

Cancer Council Australia Position Statement - Physical activity & reducing cancer risk:

Get involved

10 000 steps challenge

Alice Springs City Council ? Cycling in Alice Springs:

Alice Springs Sport

Alice Springs Swimming Centre:

Alzheimers NT - Health & wellbeing program - Ph: (08) 0848 5228

Darwin City Council ? Leisure and Recreation for Families, Children and Young People

Outdoor exercise stations

Public Swimming Pools

Sporting grounds and ovals

Tennis and netball courts

Heart Foundation walks

Heart Starters ? cardiovascular fitness, strength, stretching and relaxation for seniors
Ph: 8946 6971

Katherine Town Council ? Katherine parks and reserves:

Katherine Aquatic Centre

Life be in it

Link care ? fitness program for seniors from culturally & linguistically diverse backgrounds
Anglicare pH: 08 8985 0000

Palmerston City Council Bike paths ?

Relay for life

Walk to school day

Walk to work day

YMCA Palmerston Aquatic & Lifestyle Centre
Ph: 8932 3474

NT Accredited Exercise Physiologists

Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA)

Bodyfit NT

08 8981 2886

Hayley Insch ( Central Australia)

08 8953 0973

Timothy Fitzpatrick ( Central Australia)

0488 734 221


Cancer Council's recommendations

Cancer Council Australia makes the following recommendations for nutrition and physical activity in support of the Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults and the National Physical Activity Guidelines for Australians:

  • maintain a healthy body weight (BMI of 18.5 ? 25)
  • do regular physical exercise:
    • 30 minutes of moderate activity a day for general good health
    • 60 minutes a day, including some vigorous intensity exercise, to reduce cancer risk
  • maintain a healthy, balanced diet:
    • eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruit - five or more servings of vegetables and two or more servings of fruit per day
    • have cereals (preferably wholegrain) - between three and 12 servings each day, depending on age and gender
    • eat meat in moderation - no more than three to four servings of, lean red meat each week and avoid processed meats
    • select lower fat foods like lean meat and reduced-fat dairy products, and try using low-fat cooking methods like grilling instead of frying
    • choose low-salt products - flavour foods with herbs and spices instead of salt
  • avoid drinking alcohol if possible, or limit yourself to two standard drinks a day (as recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council) and try to have one or two alcohol-free days a week.

More information about these recommendations are available in Cancer Council's preventing cancer lifestyle fact sheets.

This page was last updated on: Wednesday, March 12, 2014

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