UN marks World Cancer Day with call for more physical activity to reduce risk

Physical activity can help reduce risk of some cancers

4 February 2011 – Two and half hours of moderate physical activity a week can reduce the risk of breast and colon cancers, according to new recommendations released by the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) to mark World Cancer Day, which is being observed today.

“Physical activity has a strong role to play in reducing the incidence of certain cancers,” WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health, Ala Alwan, said on the release of the agency’s latest Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health. “Physical inactivity is the fourth leading risk factor for all global deaths, with 31 per cent of the world’s population not physically active.”

Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide after cardiovascular diseases, according to WHO. In 2008, almost 460,000 women died from breast cancer, while close to 610,000 men and women died from colorectal cancer.

The new recommendations advise that at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week for people aged 18 and over can reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases, including breast and colon cancers, diabetes and heart disease.

For youngsters between the ages of 5 and 17, at least one hour of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity can protect their health and, in turn, reduce the risk of these diseases.

WHO noted that physical inactivity is also linked to 3.2 million deaths per year, including 2.6 million in low- and middle-income countries, over 670,000 premature deaths of people under the age of 60, and about 30 per cent of diabetes and some types of heart disease.

It added that the international community needs to put greater focus on research for additional factors contributing to cancer.

“Physical inactivity is one risk factor for non-communicable diseases, which is modifiable and therefore of great potential public health significance. Changing the level of physical activity raises challenges for the individual but also at societal level,” said Chris Wild, the director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialized cancer agency of WHO, which is leading studies into cancer risk factors.

World Cancer Day was initiated in 2005 by the Union for International Cancer Control. This year, the Day is being marked as the world prepares for the UN General Assembly’s High-level Meeting on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases, which includes cancer as well as cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, in September. The four ailments cause more than 60 per cent of all global deaths or more than 35 million fatalities annually.

The Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health provide WHO member states with the evidence base needed to make policies for physical activity programmes to promote good health. Most countries, particularly low- and middle-income, do not have national physical activity guidelines.

WHO said that worldwide, lung, breast, stomach, liver and colorectal cancers cause the most cancer deaths each year, and the majority of all cancer deaths occurred in less developed regions in 2008.

Marking World Cancer Day, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) today drew attention to the plight of developing countries battling the scourge. The agency has a history of helping countries develop skills and infrastructure in radiation medicine, including through extensive curriculum development in radiation medicine by its Division of Human Health.

The nuclear watchdog has joined forces with a number of African countries to help equip them with a new generation of health care professionals to deal with cancer, which is fast supplanting HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria as the developing world’s top killer.

The IAEA said that cancer sufferers in Africa face particular difficulties – 17 IAEA member states have no cancer radiation therapy centres and another 20, only one each. According to WHO, Africa also has fewer than five per cent of the world’s specialized health care workforce, insufficient to handle the incidence of this deadly disease.


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