Physical activity and colorectal cancer

Sports Med. 2004;34(4):239-52. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200434040-00004.


Physical activity has been shown to reduce risk of colon cancer. Some studies have shown site-specific associations while others have not. The inverse association between physical activity and colon cancer is consistent although only 7 of 13 studies that have collected both colon and rectal cancer data in the same manner report reduced risk for rectal cancer; four of these studies detected statistically significant inverse associations. The frequency, duration and intensity of activity are important components of a public health message to reduce risk of colon cancer through performance of physical activity. However, difficulties in estimating the exact amount of activity needed and frequency and intensity of activity result in only crude estimates of dose needed for a protective effect. Much of the literature suggest that more intense activity is needed to reduce colon cancer risk and that somewhere between 3.5 and 4 hours of vigorous activity per week may be needed to optimise protection. Several biological mechanisms have been proposed to explain the association between physical activity and colon cancer; many of these mechanisms also support the observation that intense activities are most protective. Biological mechanisms include: physical activity increasing gut motility; enhancing the immune system; decreasing insulin and insulin-like growth factor levels; decreasing obesity; enhancing free radical scavenger systems; and influencing prostaglandin levels. The evidence taken together provides strong support for lack of physical activity being causally related to colon cancer. It has been estimated that 12-14% of colon cancer could be attributed to lack of frequent involvement in vigorous physical activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenoma
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / genetics
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Risk Reduction Behavior
  • United States