Reducing your risk of cancer through a healthy lifestyle

Sadly, it is estimated that 1 in 2 people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.

Thankfully, as more research is conducted, medicine evolves, public awareness increases and cancer is detected earlier, more people are surviving than ever before. In the UK we now have better access to early cancer screening services, more cancer awareness and more treatment options, so approximately 50% of people now survive their cancer for 10 years or more.

The best way to fight against cancer is through prevention and early detection so that treatment can be more effective before it spreads to other parts of the body. Cancer can be detected early by attending screening appointments when invited and by being aware of what our bodies look and feel like through self-examination.

How can cancer be prevented?

Did you know that around 4 in every 10 cancers could be prevented through changes to what you eat, managing your weight and being physically active? Preventable cancer-related deaths are caused by tobacco use, high body mass index (BMI), alcohol use, low fruit and vegetable intake, and a lack of physical activity.  

  • Obesity

Obesity is the second largest cause of cancer in the UK and results in approximately 6% of all cancers. Being overweight can cause 13 different types of cancer including breast, bowel and pancreatic cancers. Being more physically active and eating a balanced diet, avoiding snacking between meals and limiting your alcohol intake can all help to maintain a healthy body weight.

  • Physical inactivity

In the UK we are becoming less physically active and spending more time sitting, increasing our risk of developing diseases including cancer. Only 6% of men and 4% of women meet the minimum requirement of at least 150 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity per week as outlined by the Department of Health and Social Care. Being physically active and routinely completing moderate to vigorous physical activity (such as a brisk walk) can reduce the risk of developing cancer by 10-24% depending on the type of cancer. It is also very important to keep your muscles strong by completing strength-based training such as yoga or squats.

If you find physical activity difficult, start small and gradually increase your activity over time. You can also do lots of small amounts of activity throughout the day such as getting off the bus one stop early or doing lunges whilst you wait for the kettle to boil.


  • Diet

Diets that don’t include many nutritious foods but have lots of processed and red meats, salt, saturated fats, sugars and alcohol can increase the risk of many cancers. A healthy balanced diet with foods high in fibre, wholegrain foods, fruit and vegetables and foods high in protein could prevent 1 in 20 cancers.

  • Tobacco use

Approximately 22% of cancers are caused by smoking or chewing tobacco, making it the largest cause of cancer in the UK. Kicking the habit can be challenging, but there are many resources available for free via the NHS, your local pharmacy or even mobile apps which can help you to take your first steps towards being tobacco-free. From just three months of being smoke-free your lung function increases by 10%.

How can I reduce my risk of developing cancer?

Taking those first steps towards a healthier lifestyle can often be daunting, but you don’t have to run a marathon, join a gym or give up all your favourite foods. You can begin by making small changes throughout your day and gradually build on your new habits.

Finding the time to be active or more mindful of our food can be challenging, but planning meals, setting goals and moving more or sitting less throughout the day can make all the difference.

Here are a few simple tips that may help you make those changes:

  • Use your smartphone or a fitness tracker to monitor your steps or activity. Aim to hit at least 10,000 steps per day. Try getting out for a walk over lunch or suggest a walking meeting with colleagues instead of sitting at your desk.


  • Setting plans or goals to be physically active at the start of your day increases your chances of meeting those goals. Knowing what, when and for how long you intend to be active makes it easier to get moving. For example, ‘I will go for a walk before my 12.30pm meeting for 15 minutes’. Set your goal and put it in your diary.


  • Keeping a record of food intake or physical activity can help us to monitor what we are doing. If you have access to a smartphone, you could track your diet and physical activity using apps such as MyFitnessPal.


Visit the NHS website for more information about how to live a healthier lifestyle and prevent your risk of cancer.

Kajal Gokal, Senior Research Associate in Behavioural Medicine and Amanda Daley, Professor of Behavioural Medicine in the Centre for Lifestyle Behaviour and Medicine, Loughborough University

For more information about preventing cancer through lifestyle changes, visit the Centre for Lifestyle Medicine and Behaviour’s website or email